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Exercise Interventions Help Reduce Asthma Symptoms, Study Shows

Getting ready to go for a walk

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Key Takeaways

  • Exercise can help reduce symptoms in people with asthma, but it is not always easy to start an exercise program.
  • Barriers to exercise include time, skill, disrupted routines, travel to attend exercise sessions, and health problems.
  • Interventions to overcome some of these barriers include behavior modification and the flexibility of using in-home programs instead of in-person exercise sessions.

Asthma, a lung disease that includes symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest, affects about 25 million Americans. Studies show that exercise can help manage the symptoms of asthma, but there are many barriers that get in the way of physical activity. A systematic review published in The Journal of Health Psychology looked at how different interventions to promote exercise in people with asthma may improve their symptoms and quality of life.

"We found that overall interventions that promote physical activity had significant benefits in terms of increasing physical activity, decreasing time spent sedentary, improving quality of life
and decreasing asthma symptoms," says  Leanne Tyson, PhD, a researcher at Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, and one of the authors of this study.

Exercise is associated with improved lung function in people with asthma, so it is often recommended as a part of the healthcare routine. However, some people with asthma still do not engage in exercise, are not referred to programs that promote exercise, or get a referral but don’t complete the program because barriers get in the way.

About the Study

The systematic review looked at 25 previous studies designed to promote physical activity and assess health outcomes in people age 18 and older with asthma. Participants in these studies were most commonly asked to exercise two or three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes, engaging in both cardio and strength training activities.

Leanne Tyson, PhD

We found that overall interventions that promote physical activity had significant benefits in terms of increasing physical activity, decreasing time spent sedentary, improving quality of life and decreasing asthma symptoms.

— Leanne Tyson, PhD

Most exercise interventions were face-to-face, and some used the telephone, printed materials, or tapes. Many of the studies also included behavior change techniques, such as goal setting, action planning, social support, and self-monitoring.

The researchers found that interventions promoting physical activity did help reduce asthma
symptoms, reduce sedentary time, increase exercise time and improve quality of life. However, there was no change in overall asthma control or medication use.

"We found that overall interventions that promote physical activity had significant benefits in terms of increasing physical activity, decreasing time spent sedentary, improving quality of life, and decreasing asthma symptoms," Dr. Tyson says.

In many of the studies, physical activity increased during the study period but was not maintained. In order to promote long-term success, interventions researchers indicate that behavior change techniques that help sustain motivation to exercise, such as reviewing goals and offering self-rewards, should be considered.

Barriers to Exercise

It's not always easy to start or maintain an exercise program, even when it's known to improve health. Some barriers to physical activity for adults with asthma are low self-efficacy, low access to exercise facilities, and the belief that they will not be able to be active due to their asthma.

 "Traditionally, physical activity interventions are delivered in-person within hospitals or community settings," says Dr. Tyson. "Major barriers to the uptake and completion of these interventions include travel to attend sessions, disruption to routines, inconvenient timing, and not being suitable
or accessible to those with additional health conditions."

Dr. Tyson explains that these barriers need to be considered in the development of future physical activity interventions, in order to provide patients with tailored programs at a convenient time and place for them. 

Another concern is the fear that exercise will trigger one's asthma symptoms. The hope is that targeted programs could reduce these kinds of negative feelings and show patients how to safely and effectively incorporate exercise into their lives.

Overcoming Barriers to Exercise

It's crucial to understand the barriers that get in the way of exercise, in order to find solutions. In the asthma and exercise study, the researchers noted that barriers to in-person exercise sessions included limited facilities and limited funding. Dr. Tyson notes that alternative methods need to be considered to increase the number of patients who can access the help and support they need to increase their activity levels.

"Our findings highlight the potential use of digital interventions that have unique advantages over traditional in-person interventions, being more accessible and convenient for users," says Tyson. "This is more important now than ever in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant suspension of face-to-face support."

Home-based programs that do not require any travel may be the winning solution. Some digital options include online meetings, video appointments, apps, and smartwatches.

Find Motivation and Set the Right Goals

In the conclusion to the study, the researchers say that they recommend future interventions are evidence-based. The goal is to implement techniques and strategies the encourage people to self-regulate their behavior and motivate them to change behaviors.

Often, having a therapist on board can help you make sustainable changes and set goals. Miami-based health psychologist Aurelle Lucette, PhD, works with clients with chronic illness to make healthy lifestyle changes and improve their quality of life. She explains that the first and most important recommendation is for clients to make SMART goals, which are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound goals

"A vague goal would look like: 'In 2022 I am going to be more active,' while a SMART goal can sound like 'For the next 4 weeks, I will walk for 45 minutes on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, right after breakfast,'" says Dr. Lucette.

Aurelle Lucette, PhD

Life is unpredictable and things might come up. Be prepared to adjust your goal if it is too lofty or if your schedule gets too busy and driving to the gym daily is no longer an option.

— Aurelle Lucette, PhD

Working with a partner or friend can help with accountability and motivation, says Lucette, who also recommends flexibility with any new routine.

"Life is unpredictable and things might come up. Be prepared to adjust your goal if it is too lofty or if your schedule gets too busy and driving to the gym daily is no longer an option," says Dr. Lucette. "Be kind to yourself as you make changes and remember to speak to yourself the way you would a dear friend."

What This Means For You

Research indicates that if you have asthma, incorporating exercise into your routine can be beneficial. Physical activity can help reduce asthma symptoms and improve quality of life. Just make sure you get guidance from a healthcare provider first to ensure you are engaging in activities that are right for you. If motivation is a factor, try setting SMART goals, and consider working with a partner or therapist. You also might want to consider home-based interventions using online programs and apps, especially if options in your area are sparse or if free time is limited.

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5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. HealthDay. Interventions to promote physical activity may benefit asthma patients.

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