Asthma

Exercise, diet, weight and other lifestyle issues

With the right treatment and management asthma shouldn’t restrict daily life. As well as taking regular asthma medication people use various self-care measures to reduce the symptoms and the risk of further attacks.

Exercise

Everyone knows that taking exercise is very important for general health. In our interviews people talked about taking part in a whole range of different types of exercise, including yoga, swimming, pilates, going to the gym, rugby, football, golf, tai chi, walking and running.
Both Tomas and John now play rugby on a professional level, and both felt that it was very important to have a positive attitude towards achieving what you can rather than giving in to it. When Tim was a child he thought he was hopeless at sports because he always got breathless and couldn’t compete with the other boys. Tim’s asthma wasn’t diagnosed till he was an adult, and when he started using inhalers he realised he was ok at sport!
Some people said it was reassuring to know that some top sports people like Paula Radcliffe and David Beckham, have asthma, although Belinda said she found such comparisons unhelpful. She worried it would put pressure on children with asthma to feel they ought to be like that too, when that may be unrealistic. Belinda herself does not like exercise much because it makes her wheeze, but says she knows ‘I should exercise more, I really should’.  

Of course most people are not competing in sport at a professional level, but there are plenty of different ways to fit some level of exercise into daily life. Often people said that they were determined not to let asthma stop them from doing something that they enjoyed and to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t. Margaret said, ‘That’s the way to beat the beast, it’s not to let it rule your life’. Often people said that when they took regular exercise they could feel the benefits in terms of general health and wellbeing, and in particular that it helped with lung function. One common piece of advice was to take a reliever inhaler before starting exercise, rather than taking it after the breathlessness had started. Getting this advice from a friend changed things completely for Esther.
Some people had taken up different forms of exercise. Jane had been doing a lot of running before she was diagnosed with asthma, but now finds that swimming suits her better. Swimming is often recommended as breathing in damp air can be helpful, though occasionally people react to the chemicals used to clean the pool (see Catherine below). Jane also plays the flute, which she says makes her breathe more deeply so helps to improve her lung function. Singing can have a similar effect.
People sometimes had definite limits to how much activity they felt able to do. Jenny who has severe brittle asthma and several other health conditions finds that very often she feels tired and lacks stamina, but even so manages to walk the dog when she feels well. She also has an exercise bike that she uses when she can. If exercise out of doors is a problem (for example if asthma is triggered by pollen or cold air) people recommended finding indoor alternatives.  

Diet and weight

People we talked to were aware that they were advised to eat healthily, but that their asthma does not require them to follow a special diet – unless they found that food was a trigger. Common food allergies include cow’s milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat products, nuts, and some preservatives and colourings. Alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer can make asthma symptoms appear, and one person said fizzy drinks affected her asthma.
Being overweight increases the load on the lungs and can make it feel a struggle to breathe easily. Several people said they felt they had gained weight as a result of taking steroid medication and that it could be difficult to shift it because steroids increase the appetite. Mary (Interview 25) found it frustrating when her doctor advised her to lose a couple of stone because she said, ‘It’s a vicious circle… he’s giving me the steroids that’s making me eat twice as much’.

Other lifestyle and environment factors

Smoking is especially bad news for people with asthma because it can irritate or even permanently damage the airways, and can also block the benefits of asthma medicines, increasing the risk of an asthma attack.
Gail had tried several times before to give up and it can be hard to quit smoking but there are resources and help available through the NHS. Gail found a short course of nicotine replacement patches worked for her.

People whose asthma was triggered by house dust mites, cleaning products and pets, were sometimes able to make adjustments to the home environment to minimise contact with their triggers. This could be difficult when visiting friends with pets.

Dusting and housework can make people feel unwell, and some joked that this meant they had a great excuse to employ a cleaner, or that their partner did the majority of the housework. Margaret’s husband always hoovers the bed when the sheets are being changed, and they have a cleaner to try to keep dust to a minimum. People often thought that it helped to have hardwood floors in their home rather than carpets, and to keep things like rugs and cushions to a minimum.
At the same time, Catherine noted that the costs of all this can mount up. Some people felt they had to pay a gardener because their asthma was triggered by pollen and grass. (See ‘Finances and benefits’).

A few people said they felt nervous about travelling away from home because of worries about having an asthma attack in unfamiliar surroundings. Remembering to pack inhalers and making sure you have some knowledge about the local area you are visiting is important. Some people found it helpful to be able to take steroid tablets away with them, with the agreement of their GP so that they had them to hand if needed.

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