Asthma and Exercise: Guidelines

Exercise can be very confusing—there are a plethora of infomercials for machines and diets that will all claim to get you results in 30 to 60 days or your money back… You know what they say: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Your friend may have lost 30 pounds in two months on some system that’s seen on TV, or that has “coaches” all over Facebook promoting products that have been "life-changing" just to make a few bucks on commission. While some people have good results and their commitment lasts a long time, the majority of those $19.99 DVDs get tossed to the side after the program ends (or earlier!) and they just get you again when the newest installment is released!

Sound familiar? Reading the small print on these websites will tell you that your results may vary.

Exercise is not a "quick fix"

This is why reputable, science-backed organizations (not just single-humans on a DVD or website!) won’t offer you a three-week program, try to sell you a solution, or sell you a fancy machine that claims to only require 7 minutes a day to lose weight (hey, maybe it works, but maybe it takes 14 weeks instead of 3 like they lead you to believe!).

Reputable organizations offer guidelines, not fixes or solutions. In the United States, the American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) is responsible for developing and promoting exercise guidelines for optimal health. In Canada, the same is done by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP). The guidelines offered by ACSM and CSEP are similar, so today, we’ll explore both to make understanding these guidelines straightforward and applicable to life with asthma.

The quickest breakdown available from CSEP for exercise for individuals 18-65 are the following1:

Aerobic (cardiovascular or cardiorespiratory) activity

150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week, in bouts (sessions) of 10 minutes of more. (This is 21 minutes per day, or 37.5 minutes 4 days per week).

Resistance (weight-training, or muscle and bone strengthening) activity

2 days per week, including major muscle groups.People with asthma have the same activity needs as people without asthma—yes, even if it makes your asthma worse in the short-term, it can help in the long term. Note that flexibility and balance activities weren’t noted by CSEP. ACSM still offers these guidelines in their recommendations for people with asthma—a practice that I believe is important to maintain physical ability—especially with aging!

How to exercise with asthma

Aerobic activity

1 to 2 sessions per day, 3 to 5 days per week, working up to 30 minutes or more 3 to 5 days per week—if needed, 2 sessions of 10 to 15 minutes each on 3 days per week can be used as a starting point.

Examples of aerobic activities: Brisk walking, jogging, running, skipping rope, cycling.2

Resistance (strength) activity

Low resistance, high repetition activity, 2 to 3 days per week. Repetitions can be increased as strength is gained—starting weight will vary upon what you need. Free weights (ie. dumbbells) or machines are recommended, but bodyweight exercises can be used (for example, push-ups—regular, modified, or against a wall; sit-ups — regular, or by doing “sit backs” — sitting on the edge of a chair and leaning back until your shoulders hit the back of the chair, and returning to an upright position slowly).

Examples of resistance activity: Weight machines, free weights (you can also use common household items, such as canned food or—yes—children!), body-weight activities (push-ups and sit-ups are the likely suggestions, but be creative! Monkey bars and wall climbing are more fun ways to get resistance training in.2


Do some degree of stretching three days per week.

While stretching is commonly (and incorrectly!) used as a warm-up activity, static (holding a position) stretches should be done after the body has warmed up to prevent injury. Stretching can be used as a cool-down activity after cardio/aerobic activity or strength training—static stretching as a warm-up in itself has been researched as far back as 1999 to have no conclusive effect on injury prevention 3, and may actually cause decreased performance in sport through causing the muscle to lose strength prior to the activity, and dynamic stretches (moving stretches, such as arm circles) are indicated to be helpful for all populations4.

Examples of flexibility activities: YouTube a yogavideo, try some simple dynamic stretches—lunges, arm circles, and head tilts—and focus on major muscle groups.2


Daily activities to improve or maintain balance.

Many flexibility activities may also help with balance. Balance can be easily practiced daily by standing on one foot while doing common activities (I usually recommend while brushing your teeth!). If you’re a bit wobbly, you can hold on to a wall or counter until your balance improves.

Examples of balance activities: Stand on one foot, try balancing on one foot and one other body part, or use a wobble board. Many yoga poses also fit the bill—tree pose, side plank, three-legged dog… And so on.2

What could it look like to follow exercise guidelines?

Take a brisk 10-minute walk to pick up a few groceries (20 minutes total)
Balance on one foot while standing in line, leaning on the cart if needed!
Upon arriving home, do 10 squats and 10 arm curls with the grocery bags, three sets each.
Play with the kids at the playground in the evening, spending time working on the monkey bars.

Follow along with a 15-minute yoga video first thing in the morning (strength, flexibility, balance). Walk kids to daycare program (10 minutes there, 10 minutes back), walking more briskly on return trip. Practice balancing on one foot (alternating) while listening to voicemails at work and making return phone calls. Jump on the trampoline for 20 minutes in the evening.

Get off the bus a couple of stops early to fit in a 20-minute walk before work. Stand on the bus to work on balance.
Do a 5-minute workplace yoga video on a coffee break. Do 5 sit backs each time you sit back down at your desk, and 5 squats each time you get up.

Balance on one foot while brushing your teeth. Spend 25 minutes playing soccer in the back yard with the kids. Use a kid as a free-weight! (Fewer repetitions, more sets!).

Ride the old stationary bike in the basement for 20 minutes after work. Do bodyweight exercises on the sidelines at kids’ soccer practice. Practice balance activities using 2 different parts of the body (ie. one knee and one elbow, one hand and one foot, etc) with the kids during a movie at home.

Go for a 30 minute walk with a friend. Practice balance while waiting in line at the coffee shop. Go grocery shopping—do arm curls and squats with grocery bags as you bring them in from the car.

Balance on one foot while brushing teeth… but otherwise take a break!

In conclusion

How do you try to sneak in extra physical activity during the day? Do some of these ideas sound practical for you? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section.

In future posts on exercise, we’ll discuss environmental triggers, choosing activities that work well with your asthma, and how to overcome obstacles associated with exercise—and more. Have a suggestion for a future post on exercise? Let me know below!

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.

Community Poll

Have you ever experienced an itchy chin prior to or during asthma attacks?