For most of us, breathing happens effortlessly. For a few, breathing becomes challenging and a conscious effort. One such condition is called “Asthma”. Asthma affects people of all age groups but often starts in childhood. While some children may grow out of asthma, it can be a lifelong condition for others. The disease is characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing, with severity and frequency varying across different people. Even though the right treatment is the key to managing asthma, it is equally important to keep track of the causes that trigger asthma. In addition to medications, certain alternative treatments like low-intensity exercises and breathing techniques are ideal and help manage asthma more effectively.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic condition that involves airways in the lungs. These airways called the bronchial tubes, allow the passage of air in and out of the lungs. People with asthma have inflamed airways always. When the condition is triggered, they become more swollen and the muscles around the airways can tighten. This makes it difficult to pass air in and out of the lungs causing symptoms that include difficulty in breathing, tightness in the chest, wheezing, or a cough.
What triggers asthma?
If a person has asthma, an attack can occur when exposed to “asthma triggers.” These triggers can vary from person to person, and therefore it is necessary to recognize and avoid them. The most common situations and triggers include:
- Allergy-induced asthma, which is caused by airborne particles like pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mould spores.
- Non-allergic asthma, in which external factors such as medications, stress, infections, food additives, and weather, trigger it.
- Exercise-induced asthma is triggered by strenuous physical activity and is commonly seen in athletes.
- Occupational asthma, which flares up due to workplace irritants like chemical fumes, gases, or dust.
Exercises that help asthma patients
Research shows that exercises improve the symptoms of asthma in the long term, in addition to improving the overall health of asthma patients. Exercise improves cardiovascular fitness and strengthens the muscles and bones which in turn helps the body clear all the secretions from the lungs.
Exercises that are considered suitable for people with asthma include:
Swimming, a low-intensity cardiovascular exercise that involves inhalation of warm, damp air, is greatly beneficial for asthma patients. Swimming helps to control breath and strengthens the upper body muscles. However, highly chlorinated pools should be avoided as chlorine can react with organic compounds in sweat or urine, that can irritate the respiratory tract and trigger asthma.
- Running, walking, or biking
These are simple and easily accessible exercises, but one should keep a tab on the quality of air as patients with severe asthma are sensitive to fluctuations. In some patients, cold air triggers the symptoms of asthma because of its dryness. In others, cold air triggers the production of histamines, the compounds made by the body in response to an allergen. The resulting high histamine levels can cause wheezing, coughing, and other allergy responses. Therefore, on cold days, one should consider cycling indoors to prevent an asthma trigger from flaring up.
- Yoga and breathing exercises
Yoga is a great option for people with asthma and other breathing difficulties. The practice focuses on learning to breathe in more efficiently. Important breathing exercises include:
- Diaphragmatic or belly breathing - This technique maximizes the distribution of air within the lungs. This breathing exercise strengthens and uses the diaphragm, a dome-shaped large muscle below the lungs. The diaphragm is one of the major muscles that helps to breathe by pushing more air into and out of the lungs. As the air gets easily trapped in the lungs of people suffering from severe asthma, the practice of this exercise helps to completely remove the used air from the lungs.
One should make sure that while breathing in, the stomach moves outward but the chest remains at the same place (this can be monitored by placing one hand on the stomach and the other on the chest). Also, exhalation must be slow through pursed lips (tightly pressed).
- Pursed lip breathing – This exercise helps the lungs and diaphragm work well, to improve the flow of air in and out of the body. It requires to position the lips like one is trying to blow out candles on a cake. By slowing down the breathing, the technique allows one to get more air into the lungs and flush out stale air caught in the lungs. It involves breathing in through the nose and breathing out slowly through the mouth with exhalation twice as long as inhalation.
- Breathing retraining
Breathing retraining focuses on better breath control and is efficient for managing asthma. It helps to relax and relearn to breathe. The two widely used approaches are:
The Papworth method involves a combination of several breathing techniques and relaxation training techniques. It encourages slow breathing from the diaphragm, and through the nose. It emphasizes on the right breathing pace, and discourages inhaling and exhaling too fast. The exercise helps to control stress that can impact breathing.
Patients suffering from asthma tend to breathe faster and deeper, called hyperventilation, which often aggravates symptoms. Buteyko breathing teaches nasal breathing, with slow and controlled breaths. By slowing down the breathing rate, Buteyko breathing helps alleviate the symptoms of asthma.
- Respiratory therapy or pulmonary rehabilitation
This is a supervised program led by a respiratory therapist. The program involves a combination of education, practiced with gentle exercises. It is offered in a group setting, which provides an opportunity for patients to receive and provide peer support. Educating patients about the condition and its symptoms increases the overall awareness levels of the disease. With the right exercises for the lungs and muscles, patients become more active and manage the condition better. The program also includes counselling on nutrition and emotional health support.
Severe uncontrolled asthma is often debilitating and needs proper management. Although certain medications help to manage the symptoms, asthma cannot be completely cured. But the quality of life can be improved by taking medications regularly, avoiding asthma triggers, and including exercise as part of the daily routine. Exercises are proven to improve overall lung health by increasing its capacity and reducing airway inflammation. It is always recommended to consult with your doctor before starting any new exercises or regimen.
Consult a pulmonologist for any queries on asthma and general respiratory health.