Asthma is one of the most common issues to plague children in the modern day. While its effects often sit at the minor end of the spectrum, when it flares up its consequences can be both severe and debilitating.
Which is why it is so important to understand how exercise effects asthma.
The rise of asthma
The first thing I wanted to touch on is the rise in children’s asthma that we have seen over the last few years (Akinbami, 2016).
Since the 1950s, asthma incidence has been rising in all population groups across the globe – however, those most heavily affected appear to be both children and adolescents. In fact, at the current time, it is believed that around 10% of children in the US are asthmatics.
Ten whole percent!
Why asthma is on the rise?
Interestingly, this increase in asthma prevalence appears to go hand in hand with an increase in urbanization (Lundbäck, 2016).
This essentially means that as areas become more populated and more industrialized, more pollution is put out into the air. This comes from factories, cars, shops, and pretty much anything else that you can think of.
Over time this air can create an immune response in the lungs and airways that results in the development of asthma.
Now, very simply, as our population is increasing, the areas that we live in are becoming more urbanized – which is arguably the largest driver for the increase in asthma that we have seen over the last few decades.
Related Article: Adolescent Sport Participation & Mental Health
Asthma vs Exercise-Induced Asthma
Before we dive into this topic any deeper, it is important to distinguish between asthma and exercise-induced asthma.
What is asthma?
To summarise it briefly, Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that ultimately makes breathing difficult.
With general asthma, the airways that carry air to the lungs become inflamed and narrow. It is this narrowing that can make it difficult to breathe, while also causing coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.
People who suffer from asthma are often hyper-allergic to many environmental pathogens – which explains why it can be triggered under seemingly normal circumstances.
It is also important to note that people with normal asthma can experience an attack in response to physical stress – however, it is still slightly different to exercise-induced asthma.
What is exercise-induced asthma?
Exercised-induced asthma is this same narrowing of the airways, however, it is triggered by high intensity or extremely strenuous exercise. Like normal asthma, it causes shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness.
Fortunately, most people who suffer from exercise-induced asthma can keep exercising and stay active by treating their symptoms with common asthma medications and taking specific preventive measures.
Causes of asthma in children
The reason that asthma has been such a hot topic for such a long time really comes down to the fact that a single cause for the disease has not been determined. In fact, most researchers believe that it can be caused by a variety of different factors (Murdoch, 2010).
- Genetics: It appears that certain genetic factors can make you more susceptible to asthma.
- Recurring viral infections: People who have a history of the recurrent viral chest and respiratory infections appear more likely to develop asthma.
- Limited bacterial exposure during childhood: It has been hypothesized that children who are not exposed to a broad spectrum of bacteria throughout their infancy see poor immune system development, which can cause asthma.
- Toxic air exposure: The chronic exposure to airborne toxins, chemicals, pathogens, and allergens, can lead to the development of hypersensitive respiratory tissue, which can cause asthma.
It is also important to note that asthma is closely linked to chronic inflammation throughout the body. This means that people with poor diet, poor exercise routines, and who partake in inflammatory behaviors, may also be at an increased risk of developing the disease (Guilleminault, 2017).
Does exercise play a role during pregnancy in asthma in children?
While we are on the topic, I wanted to note some interesting research that demonstrates that exercising during pregnancy may actually have some preventative effects on the development of asthma in children (Harpsøe, 2013; Blaize, 2015)..
First and foremost, the offspring of women who gain more than the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy appear to be at an increased risk of developing asthma than those who gain within the recommended amount
Obviously, exercise during pregnancy can rectify this.
Secondly, exercise during pregnancy causes marked reductions in inflammation. There is some evidence to suggest that this may allow better immune system development, and limit the risk of the offspring experiencing a myriad of chronic diseases – most likely including asthma.
This means that achieving the recommended exercise guidelines during pregnancy may, in fact, reduce the risk of your child developing asthma – which is pretty amazing!
How does exercise affect children with asthma?
Let’s talk about exercise and asthma.
Children with asthma tend to have lower activity levels than those who do not. To put it simply, because exercise can cause the onset of asthma symptoms, they are often told to steer clear of it as much as possible (Wanrooij, 2014; Lochte, 2016; Joschtel, 2018).
However, this is terrible advice.
By avoiding exercise, their fitness declines rapidly. This results in their exercise tolerance becoming lower, which means that any form of exercise is going to increase their likelihood of experiencing an asthma attack significantly.
Not to mention that fact that by avoiding exercise, these same children miss out on all the valuable benefits of that exercise – including important social interactions, improvements in mental and physical health, and the development of adequate motor control.
Now, building on this even further, exercise may also have a positive impact on asthma itself.
There is a growing body of research clearly demonstrating that when children with asthma increase their exercise levels, they see a reduction in airway inflammation, and vastly improved asthma control. This often comes with improving quality of life, and obvious improvement in fitness.
In short, it makes their asthma less severe.
What precautions should children with asthma take?
When it comes to exercising with asthma, there are some obvious precautions that need to be taken to make sure it is as safe as possible. These include:
- Take your asthma medication with you
- Avoid known environmental and dietary triggers before exercising (no matter how mild)
- Monitor symptoms throughout the exercise, and ease off if symptoms increase
- Actively try and breathe through the nose
- Do not exercise if sick
Exercising safely with asthma doesn’t have to be complex – it just requires some smart planning and paying close attention to how you feel.
Best exercises for asthma
Research has shown that for significant improvements in both fitness and quality of life to occur, asthmatic children need to be exercising often, and at a fairly high intensity.
Moreover, exercise that involves short sporadic bursts of intense activity appear to very well tolerated, as they allow the opportunity to recover between bouts of exercise. Alternatively, long distance aerobic activity is often a little less tolerated.
With this in mind, opting for sports such as baseball, football, basketball, gymnastics, and track sports, are all great options, as are fun ‘game-style’ activities.
In more formalized exercise settings, high-intensity interval training may provide a valuable option, as will circuit style weight training.
Related Article: Do Children Perform Better In Sports Based On Coach’s Gender?
Exercise tips children with asthma
All of this means that your role as a parent is to increase your asthmatic child’s exercise levels safely and in an effective manner. This can be done by:
- Actively encourage them to participate in a sport
- Undertake some form of exercise with your child every day
- Role model exercise for your children
- Make sure that you have their medication on hand at all times
As simple as this may seem, setting your child a lifetime of dealing with asthma successfully comes down to making sure that exercise is a part of their life from a young age.
So make it a part of their life from a young age – simple.
Take Home Message
While the symptoms of asthma can at times be debilitating, it does not have to be a death sentence – and it certainly does not mean that you should avoid exercise.
In fact, making sure that your asthmatic child participates in exercise can improve health, enhance fitness, boost the quality of life, and even reduce asthma symptoms.
In short, it should be an integral component of an asthmatic child’s life – so make sure it is.
Akinbami, Lara J., Alan E. Simon, and Lauren M. Rossen. “Changing trends in asthma prevalence among children.” Pediatrics 137.1 (2016): 1.
Lundbäck, Bo, et al. “Is asthma prevalence still increasing?.” Expert review of respiratory medicine 10.1 (2016): 39-51.
Murdoch, Jenna R., and Clare M. Lloyd. “Chronic inflammation and asthma.” Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis 690.1-2 (2010): 24-39.
Guilleminault, Laurent, et al. “Diet and asthma: is it time to adapt our message?.” Nutrients 9.11 (2017): 1227.
Harpsøe, Maria C., et al. “Maternal obesity, gestational weight gain, and risk of asthma and atopic disease in offspring: a study within the Danish National Birth Cohort.” Journal of allergy and clinical immunology 131.4 (2013): 1033-1040.
Blaize, A. Nicole, Kevin J. Pearson, and Sean Newcomer. “Impact of maternal exercise during pregnancy on offspring chronic disease susceptibility.” Exercise and sport sciences reviews 43.4 (2015): 198.
Lochte, Lene, et al. “Childhood asthma and physical activity: a systematic review with meta-analysis and Graphic Appraisal Tool for Epidemiology assessment.” BMC pediatrics 16.1 (2016): 50.
Wanrooij, Vera HM, et al. “Exercise training in children with asthma: a systematic review.” Br J Sports Med 48.13 (2014): 1024-1031.
Basaran, Sibel, et al. “Effects of physical exercise on quality of life, exercise capacity and pulmonary function in children with asthma.” Journal of rehabilitation medicine 38.2 (2006): 130-135.
Joschtel, Barbara, et al. “Effects of exercise training on physical and psychosocial health in children with chronic respiratory disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” BMJ open sport & exercise medicine 4.1 (2018): e000409.