Breathing exercises and special techniques can help with the symptoms of asthma and increase your overall lung strength, capacity and health. Discover how breathing exercises can help asthma and which forms of cardio exercise are best for asthmatics.

Breathing exercises for asthma

In the same way that aerobic exercise is beneficial for your heart and muscles, breathing exercises can be beneficial for your lungs. With asthma, your airways can become narrow and inflamed making it difficult to breathe, so medications such as inhalers, are prescribed to help open up the airways and improve breathing.

In addition to medication, research suggests that breathing exercises can be a beneficial treatment for people with asthma, helping to improve breathing and quality of life.

There are various types of breathing techniques that are particularly helpful for asthmatics. Some of the exercises help with breathing retraining, some help increase the strength of respiratory muscles, whilst others improve the flexibility of the thoracic cage (rib cage).

Breathing techniques are often recommended by a doctor or asthma clinic. To ensure you get the methods right and gain the most from it, some are best taught by an expert.

Papworth method

The Papworth method was developed in the 1960s at Papworth Hospital and combines breathing techniques with relaxation methods. Studies have shown that using the Papworth method can help respiratory symptoms and improve quality of life in people with asthma.

The Papworth method is taught by physiotherapists and focuses on learning how to breathe slowly and steadily from your diaphragm (the muscle under your ribs) and through your nose.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The diaphragm is the muscle located below your lungs that helps you breathe. With diaphragmatic breathing, the emphasis is on learning how to breathe from your diaphragm, rather than your chest as so many people tend to do. As well as helping to strengthen your diaphragm, this asthma breathing method can help decrease the oxygen needs of your body  – as weak muscles cause you to need more oxygen – and help slow down your breathing.

To try diaphragmatic breathing, place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose and pay attention to how your stomach fills with air. Ideally the hand on your stomach should rise, whilst the one on your chest should stay still. Breathe out through your mouth at least two to three times longer than you inhaled, while keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed.

Pursed lip breathing

Pursed lip breathing is a technique used to help control shortness of breath. It’s a good way to slow down breathing, making sure that each breath you take is more effective. It helps keep the airways open for longer, so that oxygen is moved into the lungs and carbon dioxide is moved out. This helps slow down the breathing rate and can relieve shortness of breath.

Try pursed lip breathing when you’re not feeling short of breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose with your mouth closed. Then breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth, with your lips pursed – as if you were about to whistle or blow a bubble. It may help to count as you breathe out.

Buteyko breathing

The Buteyko method was developed by Russian scientist Professor Konstantin Buteyko and is a form of breathing retraining. His research found that only one in 10 people breathe correctly and many people breathe too deeply, creating the wrong mixture of gas – oxygen and carbon dioxide – in the body. It’s possible that breathing too deeply could actually cause shortness of breath.

The idea behind the technique is to help people learn to breathe normally, so that the optimum combination of oxygen and carbon dioxide are present in the body. It teaches you to breathe slowly and gently through your nose, rather than your mouth. This helps to keep the air warm and moist, which is more calming on asthma-sensitive airways.

Yoga breathing exercises for asthma

Yoga breathing or yogasana for asthma stems from the practice of yoga. As a form of exercise, yoga incorporates the need to breathe steadily in a controlled fashion whilst moving, stretching and balancing.

Some studies have shown encouraging results and an improvement in asthma symptoms after yoga breathing techniques have been practised. Yoga is also good for helping to relieve stress and, as stress can be a trigger for asthma, it may be good to try both yoga breathing exercises and yoga movements.

Asthma and breathing exercises

Exercising can be more challenging when you have asthma, especially if you’re worried it might set off an asthma attack. But exercise is beneficial for your overall health and your asthma. In fact, having regular exercise could result in improving your asthma symptoms, as increasing your heart rate helps improve your lung power, boost stamina and reduce breathlessness.

In addition, regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of an asthma attack. Exercising also releases chemicals in your brain called endorphins, which can raise your mood and help you feel better.

The best types to do if you have asthma are:

  • Swimming – the warm moist air in a swimming pool is asthma-friendly. Swimming is a good low-impact cardiovascular workout that helps the whole of your body and especially the muscles you use for breathing.
  • Walking –  walking is a great way to improve your fitness, especially if you need to build up slowly.
  • Cycling –  steady cycling can improve movement and endurance levels, without overstraining the lungs.
  • Jogging – jogging can help strengthen the muscles you use for breathing, as well as improve your fitness as a whole.
  • Team sports – team sports that involve short bursts of physical activity, such as netball, volleyball, football or athletics can be good choices to try.

Short bursts of activity are good for asthmatics, as they can help build your heart and lung stamina. Exercising in short bursts is also less likely to trigger an asthma attack then taking part in longer, more prolonged, activities such as long-distance running.

Exercising safely with asthma

Sometimes exercise can trigger asthma symptoms to worsen. This is believed to be due to the fact that you breathe faster and through your mouth while you exercise, and that the air going into your lungs might be colder and drier than usual. For some people, the change in temperature can cause the airways to narrow, triggering asthma symptoms. One way of reducing the risk of exercise triggering asthma is to ensure you warm up well beforehand and cool down property after exercising. Or if cold air is problematic, try indoor forms of exercise instead.

Tips for exercising safely with asthma:

  • Always have your reliever inhaler with you.
  • Be aware of your asthma triggers and avoid them where possible. For example, if you’re affected by pollen or heat, avoid exercising in these circumstances.
  • If you’re exercising with other people, tell them you have asthma and explain what to do if you have an asthma attack.
  • If you do experience symptoms such as wheezing, breathlessness that doesn’t calm down when you stop moving or coughing when exercising, stop and take your reliever inhaler.
  • Remember to warm up and cool down.
  • If cold weather sets off your asthma symptoms, stick to indoor exercise.
  • Reduce exercise if you have a viral infection, such as a cold, as infections can make asthma symptoms worse.

If you’re in any doubt about which forms of exercise are best for you and your asthma symptoms, speak to your doctor for advice.