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Exercise and Fitness

Out of Shape or Asthma?

11/16/2010

Question:

I go to a college that’s built on a hill. I have to walk up hills and flights of stairs every day, and I become easily out of breath. The amount of exercise I get here is quite a bit more than I got in high school, and I’ve been going here two years but despite the constant exercise my ability to breath, if it has changed at all, has gotten worse.

Am I just out of shape, or might I have some kind of lung problem?

Answer:

It is possible that you may lack conditioning or have a condition such as asthma. Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the breathing passages (bronchi) of the lungs. Asthma is characterized by sudden attacks or periods of bothersome or severe symptoms separated by periods of mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all.

The inflammatory reaction of asthma is triggered by external factors or specific situations. When a person with asthma is exposed to one of his or her triggers, the inflammation worsens and symptoms begin.

The list of possible triggers of asthma is lengthy and varied. Each individual with asthma has his or her own specific trigger or set of triggers. These triggers generally are related to the way we breathe or the condition of the atmosphere we breathe in.

Triggers include contaminants in the air, such as smoke, pollution, vapors, dust, or other particles; respiratory infections, such as colds and flu (viruses); allergens in the air, such as molds, animal dander, and pollen; extremes of temperature or humidity; and emotional stress. Exercise is a common trigger of asthma attacks.

Exercise can even induce an asthma attack in people who have no other triggers and do not experience asthma under any other circumstances. People with exercise-induced asthma are believed to be more sensitive to changes in the temperature and humidity of the air.

When you are at rest, you breathe through your nose, which serves to warm, humidify, and cleanse the air you inhale to make it more like the air in the lungs. When you are exercising, you breathe through your mouth, and the air that hits your lungs is colder and drier. The contrast between the warm air in the lungs and the cold inhaled air or the dry inhaled air and moist air in the lungs, can trigger an attack.

Once the attack is triggered, the airways begin to swell (bronchospasm) and secrete large amounts of mucus. The swelling and extra mucus partially block or obstruct the airways. This makes it more difficult to push air out of your lungs (exhale).

However, if you do have this condition, you are likely to feel more like you are gasping for air to survive rather than just being out of breath. If you feel that you are truly gasping, I would recommend seeing your physician.
 
On the other hand, if you are not currently exercising any more than walking up hill or up the stairs to class, it is possible that each time you are challenging your body to the max. To become conditioned to this, to where performing these tasks feels easy, I would recommend exercising on a treadmill at an incline, arc trainer on a resistance of 40+, elliptical on high resistance or a stair climber for a minimum of 30 minutes at least 4 days per week.
You will need to train at a level that is more challenging than walking up hills to class in order for that task to seem less challenging. If your body performs activities that are relatively more difficult than what you are training for (walking up hill to class) then your body will be less stimulated or challenged when the action is performed, thus you will not get out of breath as frequently.

It is possible that you haven't adapted to this yet if you take the summers off and are relatively inactive. In this case, your body is physically starting over each fall when you return to school because the training is not maintained or made more difficult during the summer months.

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Response by:

Brandi  Hester Janowiecki, BSc Brandi Hester Janowiecki, BSc
Coordinator Fitness and Wellness
Fitness Center at CARE\Crawley
University of Cincinnati