“She Can’t Run The Mile”
One of my earliest childhood memories attending public school is standing inside with my fifth-grade teacher on a hot day in May, passing out popsicles to my classmates when they passed the half-mile marker during the annual mile run. I remember we were told for weeks that we would be assessed on our time running a full mile around the school. Who would be the fastest? Who would come in last? Some kids lamented: "I hate running!"
I remember thinking, “Oh boy, I am definitely going to be in the back!”
Feeling different and defeated
When the Mile Run day finally came, there was a mix of excitement and groaning. Some kids were excited to spend class time outside, some were dreading the task. We were all told to make sure we wore closed-toed tennis shoes and shorts.
As my class lined up to race and see who was the quickest kid of them all, I was pulled aside. My teacher turned to another teacher in our hall who was also lining her kids up and said, “She can’t run the mile, she has asthma.” I was tasked with the big job of passing out popsicles to the other kids (which, don’t get me wrong, was awesome! Air conditioning and unlimited fruity and refreshing treats, yes please!). Although, I do remember feeling left out and as though I didn’t fit in. Some kids commented as they went by, “Aw man, why does she get to stay inside?” I remember thinking, “I wish I could be normal, like you.”
Watching other kids race by, laughing with one another, while the teacher and I sat by the sidelines cheering them on, was one of the first moments I felt as though I was different and not as good as other kids. Was I broken? Why did my breathing have to give up so quickly? What was wrong with me?
Asthma hurt my self-esteem
Many of my memories growing up outside of school illustrated that my teacher was right--I couldn’t run the mile. Or at least, it wouldn’t have been a good idea. I carried in my school bag every day a tiny rescue inhaler that I was now old enough to administer to myself “if needed” (which was often).
I took a steroid inhaler in addition to that each morning, along with allergy medication. I spent many nights in the children’s hospital hooked up to a breathing machine after waking up in the middle night unable to breathe. I was that kid.
Unfortunately, this experience would repeat itself all throughout grade school. In middle school, I was yet again told I would not be participating in the annual mile run, thanks in part to my mother’s graceful and cautious communication with my school. All my instructors, and especially the PE teachers knew that physical exertion could send me to the doctor’s office. I constantly lamented about not being able to do sports, and as I got older I began to feel extremely limited in what I could do. I felt lethargic and sedentary, and my self-esteem suffered.
Running from the stigma of asthma
In the ninth grade, I was placed into a weight training program, as P.E. was a requirement to graduate high school. In that class, I remember feeling as though both the teacher and my classmates looked down on me because I would walk, not run, the mile, or walk the ‘stadiums’ (which by the way was an absolutely arduous activity where we were to run up and down the football stadium bleachers in the scorching heat, ack!)
By this point, I was well in tune with my physical limitations and my asthma management was, although better managed than when I was very young, still heavily reliant on my ability to pull out a rescue inhaler when I needed it. That was nearly every P.E. class. P.E. was supposed to teach us about using our bodies and developing smart and healthy exercise habits, but for me, it was a reminder that I was not good enough. These classes seemed to paint a broad stoke about ability, and either you worked hard and were good or you were not. Often times I felt as though I was seen as lazy, when in reality I couldn't breathe.
In college, walking around the hilly campus I attended was a task, and I would often come into the classroom trying to catch my breath for the first few minutes of class. Ugh, could I really still not run a mile? Why was just existing on this campus difficult?
After so many years, I was still that kid. I had many visits to the college clinic because my breathing would be labored so often. Every day filled with laborious trouble breathing just to get through the day, which was amplified during a graduation required P.E. class I took. The class was weight lifting (a choice I made because I thought "this has got to be the lowest aerobic choice!”).
During class one day I decided to explore other areas of the gym, and found myself on an elliptical. Twenty minutes in, I was on my way to the hospital in an ambulance--my body had broken out into hives and my lungs were tight as heck! What was going on? I got fed a concoction of antihistamines, put on a breathing machine, and prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector.
A strange development
"That was weird," I thought. But surely since it hadn’t ever happened before, it was just some wild allergy, a one-off experience. A few weeks later, I decided to hit up the college gym again. I was tired of my self-esteem suffering, I was gaining weight from all of the delicious food in the dining hall, and I felt as though after many tear-filled nights that I was destined to never be able to exercise. But that couldn't be true. “It’s not my fault,” I kept thinking. I wanted to change my life.
The gym trip was a mistake, and I found myself back at the ER and smacked with another huge bill. That time, the doctor’s suggested that I might have “exercised-induced anaphylaxis”. What the heck, I thought. Another limitation that was extraordinarily scary and extremely illusive. Just another reason I wasn't normal.
I brought these experiences to my PCP at the college clinic at the time and I was told that if I was going to go to the gym (and that I probably should not entertain that idea in the first place), that I needed to bring an inhaler, take non-drowsy antihistamines prior to, keep my body cool, and carry my epinephrine pen. All to go on an elliptical for thirty minutes. Even worse, I was told these breakouts may be related to the medication I was taking to manage my comorbid chronic migraines. Oy. Questions in my mind went wild: “So I could try to exercise but not take medicine for migraines, or I could manage my migraines but not my asthma, or I could not exercise at all”.
Determined to exercise with asthma
Was it even worth the exercise to be taking medications and risking my breathing? Still, I had enough. I didn’t want to be the kid unable to run a mile forever, so I tried the steps recommended to me. One day, determined to beat the elliptical, I brought a towel to wet and keep by my side, I took an antihistamine, I tossed my inhaler and epinephrine pen in my bag, I skipped my migraine medication, and I got on the elliptical. Thirty minutes went by and my face wasn’t puffy, but my breathing was out of control. I took my inhaler and went to lay down at my dorm for the rest of the night. That was test number one.
Over the next few months, I visited the gym again and again, taking the antihistamine and asthma inhaler prior to any exercise, keeping my body cool, and I didn’t break out in hives. My breathing also became more regulated while exercising and I chose low-intensity settings. I couldn’t believe I was actually exercising with asthma!
Eventually, I moved from the elliptical to the indoor track. It seemed like I had a system in place, and taking the right precautions and medication helped me to delve into a new world. Then one day, I took all the necessary precautions and my body broke out in hives all over and my throat began to close up. Another trip to the doctor. Seriously? I thought. Was there really no way to beat allergies and asthma? Was I still not 'good enough'?
I kept trying though. I wouldn’t say this was the smartest move on my part, because the risk of inducing known asthma attacks and anaphylaxis was huge--but, on the other hand, other areas of my life were suffering tremendously. I made the choice that I was going to find a way. I kept taking the allergy medication and inhaler, I kept exercising, I kept pushing. And eventually, I began to see changes in my asthma. Years later, not only had I run a mile on an indoor track, but I was running six miles a day outside. Talk about a glow up!
My asthma has changed over time
I became meticulous about my regiment, and I also was determined as heck. I never ran or exercised without taking my inhaler and allergy medicine first. I made sure I didn’t get too hot and ran in the winter or during the night. I was no longer that kid! I felt so elated to be able to exercise and have kept up this practice for years, and I have found that I have a little more control over my asthma and allergies when it comes to exercising.
My overall quality of life has improved--and my body also changed with age. Now, I take my asthma inhaler before exercise, but I don’t wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe nearly as much as I did when I was a kid. I am lucky and grateful that I have found steps I can take to exercise, even if just a little.
Sharing what I've learned
In sharing my story, I want to note that it is important for each person to work closely with a healthcare professional to find ways to achieve activity that works for their own asthma and lifestyle, with safety as a first priority. Sure, I didn’t cure my asthma, but I did find a way to change my activity habits after much trial and error and close attention to my body’s response to my environment.
One reflection I have over the many years I have lived with asthma is that during the times when I wasn’t able to exercise, and especially on the days now when I can’t because my asthma decides it doesn’t care if I took my inhaler or not, that I am not defined by my ability to run and ‘keep up’ with others. That voice that told me ‘I could never’ is no longer welcome in my life. When I can't do something, I remind myself that I am strong in other ways. I am determined and I am good enough.
If I could go back and look at myself standing there in the fifth grade handing out popsicles to kids who seems so much luckier at the time, I would say “you are good enough, no matter what.”
What was your experience growing up with asthma like? Do you find that you feel differently now than you did when you were younger? Have you changed behaviors and habits that have allowed you to do something you thought you’d never do because of asthma? Do you still struggle to exercise or engage in physical activity due to asthma? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Has asthma changed your exercise routine?