Why Physical Activity is Important to People with Asthma

With the right approach, being physically active can benefit asthma symptoms. It can increase lung capacity and reduce inflammation, thereby improving overall lung capacity. Participation in regular physical activity will increase the person's exercise tolerance and reduce the risk of exercise induced bronchospasms (i.e. restricted airway as a result of stress from exercise). In addition to lung health, people with asthma can experience the same benefits from being active as the general population.

Even people who have exercise-induced asthma (shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing or coughing during exercise or when doing physically demanding tasks) can benefit from being active if it is done properly and their asthma is kept under control. If asthma is triggered by exercise, a doctor prescribed asthma action plan should be followed. In most cases the benefits of regular exercise will outweigh the risks associated with exercise-induced asthma.

Physical Activity Tips and Modifications for People with Asthma

Asthma can impact a person's capacity to exercise to varying degrees, as people have different tolerance levels to physical activity.  People with asthma have different levels of tolerance for physical activity. It is extremely important to understand what these levels are and not push the person too hard.

Teaching and Communication Techniques for Physical Activity Leaders

It's helpful to know ahead of time what an individual with asthma uses to manage symptoms in the event of an attack. Be aware of where the person's medication/inhaler is at all times. If an attack occurs, retrieve the person's medication/inhaler, remove them from the crowd, and help them to calm down and relax while they recover. Be sensitive to how frustrating it must be to have to stop the activities that they enjoy, and how embarrassing it may feel to have others around to witness their asthma attack.

When working with a person who has asthma, consider the following:

  • Take note of what type of medication/inhaler participants use, and where it is all times during physical activity and how the person manages their symptoms in the event of an attack;
  • Know the unique limits of the participant and do not push them too hard. Encourage participants to pace themselves appropriately without singling them out in front of others;
  • Communicate with the participant, come to understand warning signs and create a signal for when he or she is not feeling well and may need attention;
  • Be aware of potential asthma triggers in the area such as poor air quality, high pollen, strong smells (paint, new carpets/flooring, etc) and removing the participant from triggers.

Modifying Leisure, Sport and Recreation Activities

There are precautions that can be taken to avoid exercise induced asthma attacks, such as:

  • Limit the size of the playing area if the individual is having difficulty covering large areas during play;
  • Administering medications before activity;
  • Before exercising, warm up slowly by walking, stretching, and doing other low-level activities;
  • After finishing exercising, cool down slowly for at least 10 minutes. 
  • Incorporate plenty of rest breaks with time to control breathing;
  • Avoid extreme environmental conditions (i.e. extreme heat or air conditioning that is too high);
  • Ensure the consumption of plenty of fluids (note: fluids should be at room temperature as cold drinks can trigger symptoms);
  • Certain types of exercise and sports may be better for people with asthma than others. For example, swimming may keep symptoms in check because the air is typically warm and humid, which can make it easier to breathe;
  • Monitor activity intensity and modify accordingly.  If a person is physically active at a high intensity for prolonged periods of time, an asthma attack may occur (i.e. exercise induced asthma attack);
  • Sports or workouts that involve short bursts of exercise may also be easier for someone with asthma. Endurance sports, such as soccer or distance running, or cold-weather sports, such as hockey or skiing, may not be well tolerated. 

More About Asthma

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung condition which is characterized by restricted airways, causing difficulty with breathing. The airways are affected by both tightening and inflammation of the muscles. This is often triggered by allergens (pollens, pet dander, moulds, etc.) as well as irritants (smoke, strong smells, cold air, etc). Symptoms can include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and feelings of tightness in the chest.

People with asthma often have difficulty breathing and performing activities in certain situations. Most people with asthma must take medications on a regular basis to control inflammation. These "controller" medications are different from the "reliever" medications used to treat an attack.

Symptoms of asthma can often occur as a result of stress to the body (i.e. physical exertion, fear, excessive laughter or excitement). Symptoms of asthma can also occur as an allergic response to pollen, grass and animals, or due to irritants such as perfume and cigarette smoke.

Impact of Asthma

Asthma attacks usually begin with shortness of breath, which is a sign of the need for immediate treatment. This typically includes administering an inhaler. If not treated appropriately, symptoms may progress to:

  • Severe wheezing;
  • Coughing;
  • Possible lack of the ability to breathe all together.

Useful Information About Asthma

  • In Canada, asthma is the third-most common chronic disease. It is estimated that over 3.8 million people in Canada currently have asthma.  Approximately 850,000 of those are children under the age of 14;
  • Canadians have a two in five chance - or a 40% risk - of being diagnosed with asthma before age 40;
  • Asthma is the most common childhood respiratory disorder. Those most affected in Canada are children and asthma continues to be a major cause of hospitalization for children in Canada;
  • Asthma accounts for ¼ of the reasons for absences from school;
  • Asthma affects people to varying degrees - ranging from mild to severe;
  • People with severe asthma may experience difficulties with routine daily activities.


Asthma Canada -
The Lung Association - Asthma Home Page -
Asthma and Physical Activity: What Physical Educators and Coaches Need to Know -
Lieberman, L.J. and Houston-Wilson, C. (2002). Strategies for Inclusion; A Handbook for Physical Educators. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Steadward, R.D., Wheeler, G.D., and Watkinson, E.J. (2003). Adapted Physical Activity. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press.

Helping Canadians with Disability/Chronic Disease Get Physically Active

For Canadians with a disability, regular physical activity may be even more important than it is for the rest of the population. For a person with a disability, an active lifestyle can open doors to increased health, social inclusion and self-empowerment - doors which might otherwise remain closed. Access to physical activity can eliminate the likelihood of acquiring secondary health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. Being active builds resiliency and can provide an all-important outlet for a person with a disability.


This project would not have been possible without the expertise of our partners. ALACD would like to sincerely thank these organizations for working with us to develop this resource: the Ontario Blind Sports Association, Variety Village, the National Network for Mental Health, and the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.