Olympic Swimmer Discusses Life With Exercise-Induced Asthma


SWIMSTARS.ORGHow's this for strange headline of the week? Sweating during intense exercise may protect the body against asthma, suggests a new study. The connection between sweat glands and lungs seems nonexistent at first, but researchers from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego say that athletes who sweat the least and produce the least amount of saliva may have drier airways—a trigger for lung inflammation and asthma attacks.

If you have asthma or have ever experienced symptoms of exercise-related breathing difficulties, this news may be interesting—but not exactly helpful. You can't very well control how much you sweat, after all. But the study results do support what doctors already believe: Keeping airways moist while you're working out may help reduce your risk. Here are a few strategies to try.

  • Stay hydrated and avoid dehydration during workouts.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a loose scarf during cold weather.
  • Exercise in a warm, humidified environment, if possible.

How an athlete copes with asthma
I recently had the chance to meet Olympic gold medalist Peter Vanderkaay; he swam anchor in this year's 4×200 freestyle relay with Michael Phelps, and won an individual bronze as well. Vanderkaay has been swimming competitively since age 7—but around age 10 he began to experience asthma symptoms (chest tightness, trouble catching his breath, wheezing) when he was in the pool or playing outside at recess.

Vanderkaay sought treatment right away, and today he's one of countless professional athletes living—and thriving—with asthma. He's partnered with Asthmyths.com, a site dedicated to helping patients get their asthma under control and their lives back to normal. (Asthmyths is sponsored by Merck & Co., maker of the asthma drug Singulair.)

"I remember being a little bit worried, early on, that I wouldn't be able to keep swimming," Vanderkaay tells me. "But once I found the right long-term action plan, I was able to get where I am today. My doctor, parents, and I worked as a team so that I could continue training. And when I got to a higher level of competition in college, I realized that a lot of athletes have asthma, and it's something they deal with on a day-to-day basis. It's not something that has held me back, at all."

Although the air quality in Beijing didn't worry him (since his events were all indoors in the air-conditioned Water Cube), Vanderkaay does have to monitor his asthma on a daily basis. He stresses that each case is different, and anyone with symptoms should talk to their doctor about preventive measures—such as avoiding common triggers and learning how to recognize the signs of an oncoming attack—and emergency treatment options.

More than 20 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma, according to the National Institutes of Health, and that number is growing each year. Are your workouts affected by asthma? How do you manage your symptoms?

For more tips on managing exercise-induced asthma, visit Health.com's A-Z Health Library.