Asthma: can swimming help?

Is swimming a good exercise for people with asthma?

Swimming has been recommended in the past as a good form of exercise for people with asthma. It was thought that breathing in warm, moist air rather than cold, dry air might reduce the risk of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction and that swimming could help develop good breathing practices.

According to the National Asthma Council Australia, there is currently insufficient evidence from clinical trials to recommend one form of physical activity over another for people with exercise-induced asthma symptoms. However, while there is insufficient evidence to support the historical belief that swimming is the preferred type of exercise for people with asthma, there have been few studies comparing the effects of swimming with other forms of exercise.

Regular exercise such as swimming improves fitness and may improve lung function in children, but there is no evidence that it will improve asthma symptoms. If you are fit, asthma symptoms are less easily triggered than when you are unfit.

Will chlorine in pools affect my asthma?

Studies have shown that elite athletes, especially those training in vigorous endurance sports such as swimming, are more likely to have asthma and exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. In elite swimmers, the intense training and repeated exposure to chlorine may contribute to the development of asthma.

If you experience asthma symptoms in the pool, talk to your doctor about prevention and more effective management of your asthma.

Exercise and asthma symptoms

Exercise is a trigger for many people with asthma: up to 90 per cent of people with asthma find that exercise can bring on asthma symptoms.

Asthma symptoms that are triggered by exercise include:

  • wheeze;
  • breathlessness;
  • cough;
  • chest tightness; and
  • excess mucus production.

Exercise-induced asthma symptoms may start during exercise but usually worsen in the 5-10 minutes after you stop exercising. They are caused by exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, which is transient (temporary) airway narrowing triggered by vigorous exercise.

It is thought that exercise-induced bronchoconstriction involves loss of heat and water from the airways as they try to warm and moisten large volumes of incoming cool dry air. As the airways lose moisture and heat, they become inflamed and constrict, limiting airflow.

How your doctor can help

Always talk to your doctor before undertaking a new exercise programme. Your doctor can help you with a written asthma management plan and evaluate your medicines and symptoms in the long-term.

To help assess your lung function and determine which medicines are best for you, your doctor may suggest you have lung function tests (spirometry).

Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction in people with asthma can be treated with reliever medicines, preventer medicines, or both.

Last Reviewed: 3 November 2014
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References

1. National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Website. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au (accessed Sep 2014).
2. National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook – Quick Reference Guide, Version 1.0. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au (accessed Sep 2014).
3. Asthma Australia. Asthma and swimming (16 June 2013). http://www.asthmaaustralia.org.au/uploadedFiles/Content/State_Content/Queensland/About_Us/Media/AA-Fact-Sheets-Swimming-0613-Colour.pdf (accessed Sep 2014).
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