Asthma on the Water: Kayaking

I’ve written before about finding a good fit activity if you have asthma. Though not perfect, I think kayaking is one of mine. I’ve loved kayaking since the first time I tried it, albeit in a double kayak. The first time I tried an individual kayak I may have just about run into some people, but I sufficed with a double with my mom for awhile, rented when we were camping, and then had the opportunity to get a bit more practice when I was at camp during high school. For years, I’ve tried to convince my mom that we should get some kayaks for at the cabin, and finally, this year was the year.



(Then I paid entirely too much for this life vest but whatever, it’s PINK. As a bonus, it has lumbar support which is kind of amazing.)

For the most part, I find kayaking a pretty asthma-friendly activity. Whether from asthma or the exertion, I usually come back from a paddle varying degrees of short of breath but surrounded by water, it feels pretty good on my lungs for the most part. I pre-medicate with Ventolin before I go out, and take an inhaler with me. A few years ago, AeroChamber sent me a bunch of stuff, including the Aero-to-Go inhaler holders, so I have a purple neoprene sleeve with an inhaler clipped to a loop at the bottom of my life jacket. One time, on a water park field trip for work, I put the inhaler in a plastic bag in my shorts, and the bag really just got water in it, so I’m not too concerned. It’s plastic and metal, I think the worst that’s going to happen is the stickers I put on there are going to fall off.

Anyways, I haven’t fallen out yet. My waterproof phone case (which is not big enough to fit the inhaler and my iPhone 6, I checked) has skimmed the water when dismounting (which kind of usually involves rolling onto the dock, although I did a perfect one over the weekend where I somehow actually managed to wind up on my butt on the dock and my feet in the kayak. Maybe I’ll have that down by the end of summer.)

The only challenges I have with kayaking (aside from when my asthma is just bad), are the drifting of bonfire smoke from the shoreline cabins, which—as with one experience I had ice skating—is not a good mix with exercise-induced asthma. It’s reciprocal for me, in that the combined effect of smoke plus exercise, and exercise then mixed with smoke, makes both of these triggers affect me way more (the smoke irritating my lungs, and the exercise irritating my lungs and speeding up my breathing so that I inhale even more of the particulate matter from the smoke in the air—my theory, anyways). The bonus with a kayak is that, so long as not too many people are burning, I can usually escape pretty quickly.


The second challenge is I think that I actually work a lot harder kayaking then I think I do. I make it look effortless a lot of the time, per my mom, and work up some decent speeds sometimes (at least in my opinion), but I think the arm work is a lot more aerobically demanding than I assume it to be, even without a current to work against. Although I don’t quite know why, research backs me up on this: upper body aerobic activities create a higher demand for ventilation than an equally intense lower-body workout1. However, that does not mean that they are contraindicated (that they should not be done). In fact, my friend Stephen wrote on his blog back in April, that even though he was in excellent physical condition while walking marathons with severe asthma (excellent minus his lungs anyways), he neglected doing any training for his upper body. Steve writes,

In an attempt to conserve energy and breath, people with chronic lung problems who are constantly short of breath, are generally less mobile and don’t use their upper body muscles as much as healthy people. Over time those muscle groups become deconditioned and gradually weaker. Strengthening the upper body muscles, helps you strengthen your breathing muscles, get more oxygen in, and breathe with less effort.” 2

For another first person perspective, I highly recommend reading his post, “Don’t forget the upper body."

So, kayaking may prove more benefit for me than just simply enjoying it—which is, of course, good enough too. But, I know I do neglect my upper body, even when I am focused on working out, and I guess I’ve got reason enough now to work on changing that.

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