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Asthma: What effect do sports and exercise have?

Last Update: February 26, 2014; Next update: 2017.

Regular physical activity can strengthen the lungs of people who have asthma and improve their overall level of fitness. Exercise and sports can also reduce asthma symptoms. It is important to keep asthma under control and adapt physical activities to your individual level of fitness.

The airways in the lungs (bronchi) of people who have asthma are always irritated or inflamed, and may be overly sensitive as a result. A common cold or certain triggers can then lead to an asthma attack: The airways narrow, it becomes more difficult to breathe, and the person has to cough. Other common symptoms include wheezing while breathing out and chest tightness.

Asthma symptoms can also be triggered by physical exertion. This is known as exercise-induced asthma. About 70 to 90 out of 100 people with chronic asthma have this type. But some people who do not have asthma experience asthma-like symptoms following physical exertion too. During physical exercise you breathe faster and through your mouth more. The air that enters your lungs is then colder and drier than usual. As a result, the linings of the bronchi swell and the airways become narrow.

Many people who have asthma are very reluctant to do any exercise or sports because they are worried that it might trigger an asthma attack. But is their reluctance justified? What are the advantages and disadvantages of physical activity in people with asthma?

Research on physical activity and asthma

Researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration (an international network of researchers) wanted to find out what effects sports and exercise have in people with asthma. To do so, they analyzed studies in this area. They were particularly interested in whether sports and exercise affect asthma symptoms.

The researchers analyzed 19 studies involving a total of almost 700 participants. All the participants took part in exercise programs that lasted between 6 and 16 weeks. The activities were done two or three times a week, and lasted at least 20 minutes at a time. The activities included things like cycling, brisk walking, and swimming.

Sports and exercise can reduce symptoms

The research showed that sports and exercise can have a positive effect on asthma symptoms. People who did certain exercise programs had asthma symptoms less often afterwards, compared to people who did not take part in the programs. The studies also suggest that this kind of physical activity can improve quality of life.

There was nothing to suggest that exercise programs have any negative effects, such as increasing the severity and frequency of asthma attacks.

Physical activity usually only leads to an asthma attack if the asthma is poorly controlled or the activity is too strenuous. The risk of exercise-induced asthma attacks tends to be low if you are aware of the problem and are prepared for the physical exertion. It is important to adjust the use of asthma medication to fit the situation. It also helps to gradually increase the level of exertion and keep your individual level of fitness in mind.

It is not clear whether certain types of sports are more suitable than others

Unfortunately, many questions could not be answered by the studies. Most of the studies were very small and only looked at the short-term effects of exercise programs. They also studied very different kinds of exercise. The frequency and intensity of physical activities in the studies varied greatly too. So it is not possible to say whether certain types of exercise are more suitable for people with asthma than others.

One thing we do know is that cold air increases the risk of asthma attacks. So if certain physical activities lead to more frequent asthma attacks, the type of sport is not necessarily to blame. External factors might play an important role here too.

That is why asthma attacks are more common when people do winter sports. But even then, the disease does not have to keep you from doing sports – you just have to know and respect your own limits.


  • Chandratilleke MG, Carson KV, Picot J, Brinn MP et al. Physical training for asthma. Cochrane Database Sys Rev 2012; (5): CD001116. [PubMed: 22592674]
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