Is Swimming Beneficial To Asthmatics?
Last updated: May 2022
Swimming has long been recommended for kids with exercise-induced asthma (EIA). It was recognized as an ideal way for them to stay fit and healthy. Recent concerns about chlorine in pools are legit. But, let’s put them aside for a moment and key in here on just the benefits. Is swimming really ideal for people with asthma? Let’s investigate the evidence.
When was swimming first prescribed for people with asthma?
There is no way of knowing who first suspected swimming of being beneficial to people with asthma. It is possible it occurred sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. It is also likely it happened at one of the asthma institutions, such as National Jewish in Denver.
A 1968 report noted that doctors at these institutions were recommending it for their asthmatic patients. They studied the effects of swimming for asthmatics for six weeks and reported no evidence of asthma symptoms or decline in lung function. As a bonus, “the authors subjectively considered the children to be much improved.”1
A 1971 study compared a control group with three asthmatic groups. One group ran on a treadmill, a second used a stationary bike, and a third swam in a pool. Each group exercised for eight minutes. Lung function (mainly FEV1) was measured in each person before and after exercise.2
The results showed that swimming was less likely to trigger asthma than running or cycling. When asthma did occur in swimmers, it was less severe than for runners or cycles. Their conclusion was that swimming should be recommended for both children and adult asthmatics.2
A 1976 study showed similar results: “Minimal adverse effects were recorded even though the majority of subjects were classified as having moderate or severe asthma… Significant physical and emotional benefits were achieved in the majority of participants.”2
In 1985, I was an inpatient with many other asthmatic kids at National Jewish. We spend at least one hour 3 or more times per week swimming in pools. We were told this was the best exercise for asthmatics. I can’t remember if we were ever told the reason.
The authors of the studies reviewed for this article likewise stated they were unsure why swimming was ideal for asthmatics. They just knew their studies seemed to confirm that it was. So, for this reason, doctors prescribed it, as mine did in 1985.3-4
What do more recent studies show?
More recent studies continue to show swimming as beneficial for asthmatics. It improves lung function, reduces symptoms, and improves overall self-confidence. Authors of these studies continue to recommend swimming as ideal for asthmatics.4-5
Researchers also know a lot more about exercise-induced asthma. They understand that under normal circumstances, your nose humidifies and warms the inhaled air to body temperature. However, when cycling or running, your nose can’t keep up. This forces cells lining airways to give up some of their heat and moisture.
This irritates these cells, causing them to release specialized chemicals. These chemicals in turn cause changes to airway cells resulting in bronchospasm and increased mucus production. This results in asthma symptoms such as chest tightness, shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.
Inhaling the warm, humid air around pools prevents this response. Or, at the very least, it reduces the risk or reduces the severity of the asthma response. This is what makes swimming ideal for asthmatics.
Noted here are only a few of the many studies confirming the benefits of swimming for asthmatics. These benefits have even been observed in the presence of chlorine in both indoor and outdoor pools. However, this is not to say chlorinated pools don’t cause problems for asthmatics. So, the impact of chlorine on asthma will be the topic of my next post. So, stay tuned!
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