If you struggle with labored breathing during exercise, it may be something more serious than simply not being in good physical condition.  Many people quit their exercise routines thinking they’re not getting any fitter because it never gets easier to breathe. It took me years to figure out that, in certain conditions, I have exercise-induced asthma.

What is EIA?

Exercise-induced asthma (EIA) is much like other types of asthma; it just has a different cause. When people with EIA have an attack, their airways constrict, and they get extra mucus, making it extremely difficult to breathe through the coughing and wheezing.

With the proper precautions, most people with EIA can still exercise safely. That’s important because being overweight can add to your risk. Overweight asthmatics have more severe symptoms, some studies found, and per a 2009 study, they don’t respond to inhalers as well as leaner asthmatics.

My Story

My freshman year in high school, my track coach talked me into running cross country.  Even though I was a sprinter, he said the distance training would help me become a better athlete.

I can’t tell you how much I struggled with the practices and meets on those cold Ohio spring days. After a tough workout, I would end up wheezing, coughing and hyperventilating.

After the district meet, my breathing was so erratic that I got so disoriented and I couldn’t find my teammates!  I was on the verge of passing out. I just figured I wasn’t a good distance runner.

When I moved to Florida to attend college, I found it easier to run distance.  I loved the humidity and it loved me!  But, sadly, it does get cold (and dry) in the winter in Gainesville.

One day, I was out for a run with one of our physical therapists, and I couldn’t breathe.  We hadn’t gone very far when it hit me.  After I gained control of my breathing again, she asked me how long I’d had exercise-induced asthma. What? I was 30 years old, and I had no idea.

The Bad News

There is no cure for asthma.  People with chronic asthma can have attacks at any time of the day or night, with exercise or without it.  Other people, like me, only have asthma attacks while exercising.

Asthma attacks are very scary and must be taken seriously. They can kill. If you have EIA, you learn when to stop short of an attack.  Unfortunately, this can leave you with a false sense of security.

Last year, my husband and I were mountain biking with friends in the South of France when I knew I needed to stop.  The air was very dry, which I’ve learned is the main trigger for my attacks.  They all stopped for me while I tried to catch my breath.  Feeling embarrassed, I jumped back on my bike and said I was okay.  I lied.

Three minutes later, I was on the ground wheezing, coughing and struggling for air.  It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest!  For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to die.

Our entire bike ride had been through countryside and mountains – not a single person around for miles.  I just happened to collapse outside of a retirement home, and a nurse swiftly gave me meds and an inhaler.  I was extremely lucky.

Tips to Remember

  • Learn what triggers your asthma.  If it’s pollen or cold air, choose indoor activities during these seasons. If pollution levels are high, choose a fun class at your local gym.
  • Keep it clean. Many people with EIA have non-exercising triggers too. They can include dust and pet dander, so keeping a clean house a must. Consider wearing a mask when you dust. If you get relief from a humidifier or air purifier, change the filters regularly.
  • Take your prescribed medications as necessary.
  • If you’re exercising in a remote location, always take your inhaler with you.
  • Colds and sinus infections can make your asthma symptoms worse.  Be prepared for an attack when you’re feeling under the weather.
  • Know your body.  Don’t let your ego make poor decisions!

The Good News

Exercise-induced asthma shouldn’t prevent you from getting out there and keeping fit.  In the 1996 Olympics, one out of every six athletes had asthma!  If they can do it, so can you.  So be smart, move often, and…

Breathe Freely,


Originally published in GO, GlobalFit’s online healthy living newsletter.”  http://www.globalfit.com/gonewsletter/default.asp