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Nobody could quite “bend it” like Beckham, could they? The man who made poetry out of a free kick was known for his ability to curve his shots into the goalpost through humanly impossible trajectories. Most people don’t know that David Beckham is asthmatic!
Who will imagine that the man who, in his playing days, was one of the most respected and popular names in football was affected by a chronic condition like asthma. If someone with asthma could play 834 games, score 146 goals and assist in another 252, why can’t common people with asthma engage in simple sports like running or cycling.
Not just David Beckham, but many elite athletes have reached the pinnacle of success with asthma. In the last Summer Olympics held in 2012 in London, as many as 700 of the 10,000 participating athletes had confirmed asthma diagnoses. All of these athletes suffer from what is known as exercise- induced asthma (technically known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction).
Of the close to 20 million Americans with asthma, around 90% have exercise-induced asthma. Exercise is known to cause shortness of breath in anybody, even a normal person. In the case of asthmatics, however, this exertion can lead to airflow obstruction, leading to exercise- induced asthma. In teenagers and young adults, exercise is the most common cause of an asthmatic attack.
Coughing is the most important symptom of all, and in most cases it might be the only symptom of exercise-induced asthma. Symptoms are experienced around 5 minutes after the start of exercising and may worsen after around 10 minutes of stopping the exercise. Symptoms can be mild to severe and often resolve in around half an hour. In certain instances, a “late phase” attack of symptoms might be experienced after four to 12 hours. These symptoms are milder as compared to the immediate symptoms and often take as many as 24 hours to resolve.
We are meant to breathe through our nose (Exercise-induced asthma, February 2016), which is designed to clean, warm and moisten the air before passing it to the lungs. During physical exercise, we start breathing through the mouth and this is when the problem starts. When we breathe through the mouth, we simply push cold, dry air into the lungs. This cold and dry air irritates the already sensitive membranes along the bronchi (airway). These membranes swell up and cause constriction of the airway, leading to symptoms of an asthmatic attack.
A large number of elite athletes and some of the biggest names in sports history, such as Paula Radcliffe (world record-holding British marathoner), Jackie Joyner-Kersee (three-time Olympic Gold medal-winning American track-and-field star) and Justin Henin (four-time French Open Tennis champ) have achieved such an exalted status in their respective sports, without asthma hampering their quest for success. Their stories certainly offer a ray of hope for millions of Americans with asthma to pursue day-to-day sporting activities without being affected by their condition.
Experts say that once you’ve learned how to deal with your condition and how to use medication to prevent symptoms from worsening, there is no reason why you cannot pursue your sporting hobbies or your passion to remain physically fit. In fact, research suggests that your asthma can actually get better with long-term physical activity. This is because when you are physically active, your lungs are fitter and healthier. Healthy lungs respire better and resist an asthmatic attack. However, if you’re a beginner, you should choose your sport or activity with care according to your fitness and training levels, so you can do them without the fear of eliciting an asthmatic attack.
Walking is a great activity for people with EIB as it gives you the joy of being physically active while not exerting your body too much to prompt an attack. Research shows that walking improved asthma control and fitness levels. During the period of a 12-week study, none of the participants had an attack. Warming up before the commencement of any activity is very important to build tolerance.
Sports that demand small bursts of activity and an interval of rest are also good for asthmatics. Some examples of such sports are baseball, softball, football, volleyball and racquet sports.
Swimming is one of the best sports for people suffering from EIB. Although it is physically demanding and requires intense activity, the warm, humid air makes it easy for you to breathe. The prolonged horizontal position can actually help in loosening up the mucus that gets deposited at the bottom of the lungs, because of asthma.
Although sports like soccer, basketball, cross country skiing and running are not good for the average person with asthma, it does not mean that you cannot engage in them if you are passionate enough. All you need is training to control your condition better and play the sport without an incidence of an asthma attack.
When you are just starting out with a physical activity, do it in warm and humid conditions. If the climate is cold and dry, wear a scarf or a muffler around the nose so that cold air does not enter your nostrils directly. This protection will also safeguard you from pollens and other allergens if you have an allergic asthma.
Always start with a sufficient warm up. A 15-minute warm-up prepares your lungs to adjust to the demands for more air later on. A study has shown that a prolonged warm-up period improved asthmatic conditions and decreased reliance on medication. Once you have finished, always perform cooling down activities for 15 minutes rather than stopping abruptly.
Drink water at regular intervals to keep yourself hydrated. Dryness of the bronchus can also trigger an attack. Rest at regular intervals so as not to overexert yourself. Always combine high-intensity and low-intensity routines. Keep your medication handy in case you start experiencing symptoms of an asthma attack.
Finally, practice breathing through your nose and try to control your breathing rate and depth. This can be done by practicing breathing techniques, like those taught in Yoga. A breathing technique called “pranayama” can be very helpful for patients of asthma.
Educate yourself thoroughly about your condition. Keeping in mind the sports for asthma recommended above, through trial-and-error you will find out which exercises suit you best and which exercises prompt an attack. Keep a track of all the physical activities you perform and how you felt after each one. Work closely with your physician to devise an Asthma Management Program. Stick to it and build upon it to make it even better.
Hundreds of elite athletes haven’t let asthma get in their way to attain glory. And neither should you, in your desire to be physically active and enjoy the sport you love.
You should also explore an unconventional breathing technique, which can help in reversing asthma. The technique, known as Buteyko Method, is covered in detail in one of our articles on asthma