Sports with Asthma
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last Reviewed: May 2016. | Last updated: March 2023
With well-controlled asthma, you should be able to participate fully in any activity you choose, including physical activity.1 Exercise is recommended for people with asthma because of the general health benefits.2 Participation in active play and organized sports is important for children to grow up healthy.1 If asthma limits your ability to be active, it may be necessary to make changes to your medications. Between 30% and 70% of elite athletes have asthma,3 which is evidence that you do not need to limit sports activity just because of your asthma!
What type of sports are best for people with asthma?
Some types of exercise cause fewer asthma symptoms than others.4 Sports that require bursts of energy are easier on the lungs than distance events. Examples include football, baseball, wrestling, or sprinting. Recreational activities such as walking or hiking are also good options. Swimming might be a good choice since the air is humid and warm. However, some people are irritated by chlorine byproducts.
If you enjoy endurance events such as running or cycling, or very active sports like soccer or field hockey, work with your health care provider to find a treatment that works for you. Cold-weather sports, such as skiing, ice-skating, or hockey, can be challenging for people with asthma. Cold air often triggers asthma symptoms, but wearing a scarf, face mask, or special heat-exchange mask over your mouth and nose can warm and humidify the air.3,4
How do I avoid exercise-induced asthma symptoms?
Warming up for ten to 15 minutes can reduce your asthma symptoms.3 The warm-up should be moderately vigorous, such as walking faster than three miles per hour, treading water, or bicycling five to nine miles per hour.5 The best warm-ups also include high-intensity intervals, such as jogging, swimming laps, or bicycling more than ten miles per hour.3 After warming up, some people experience a two-hour symptom-free window.
Using a short-acting beta-agonist (SABA), such as albuterol, before exercise can also reduce symptoms.3 This medication relaxes the muscles that surround your airway, allowing the airways to open up. Albuterol is taken five to 20 minutes before starting to exercise and is effective for two to four hours. If you have underlying asthma, taking your long-term control medications reduces airway inflammation and sensitivity.
Outdoor exercise exposes you to allergens and irritants, such as pollen and air pollution. When the outdoor air quality bad, try to exercise in the morning. Pollen and pollution levels are lowest shortly after sunrise.1 You can find information about local outdoor air quality at:
How can I make sure my child is safe while playing sports?
Your child should have a written Asthma Action Plan. The Asthma Action Plan should describe signs and symptoms of worsening asthma, and say who to call and when. Be sure that your child’s coach has a copy of the Asthma Action Plan. Discuss the plan with the coach at the start of each season. Tell the coach what triggers your child’s asthma – and be sure that information is also in the Asthma Action Plan.
If asthma symptoms flare up, it is important that your child has quick and easy access to his or her rescue inhaler. Make sure your child has the inhaler close by and knows how to use it.
Does exercise improve lung function?
Maybe. The authors of one review paper looked at eight studies with 262 children, ages 18 years and under.6 They concluded that swimming improves lung function and fitness. Another review paper included 17 studies with 599 people.7 The authors found that people who exercise had fewer asthma symptoms and a better quality of life. Their airways were less sensitive, and they had better lung function.
On the other hand, guidelines from the Global Initiative for Asthma say that regular exercise is not specifically helpful for lung function or asthma symptoms.2 They state that with the exception of swimming for children, there is no reason to recommend one type of physical activity over another. These guidelines do recommend exercise for its other benefits. They also point out that if you are in better shape, you may feel less shortness of breath.8