Picture yourself at the gym, on a treadmill next to someone else. The person next to you doesn’t appear to be exerting that much effort but is red-faced, winded and wheezing. Most people’s first thought would be to assume that person is out of shape, maybe even lazy, especially if they happen to also be overweight. A lot of people avoid going to the gym because they assume these thoughts are rampantly playing through other people’s minds as they work out. For me, it’s why I avoid doing cardio in front of other people.
Anyone who knows I am a regular to the gym would assume that I am in shape, given that I have been a frequent gym goer for more than a third of my life. When I do cardio though, I become the dictionary definition of what so many people think of as “out of shape.” I wheeze, huff and puff and get red in the face while doing something as simple as walking on an incline or pushing the stepmill up to level 2.
Like 3 million Canadians and 15 million Americans, I am asthmatic.
Asthma isn’t just a children’s illness. I don’t talk about it much because I don’t want people to think I am using asthma as an excuse for avoiding certain things. I struggle though, to do things like HIIT cardio or Tabata because my lungs will never be able to operate at the same level as my legs. I still do them, but I can never push as hard as is expected.
Whenever I see fitness people badmouthing those who do steady-state cardio I always want to jump in and remind many of them, especially those who are personal trainers, that not everyone can do things like sprint intervals efficiently. For example, my cardio at the gym last night was a pretty basic incline treadmill walk. The incline was at 6%, the speed was at 3.4 mph and my heart rate was consistently in the range of 155-170. I would have had a difficult time holding a conversation and I was “just walking.”
Before the “if you just keep doing it, it’ll get better,” folks jump in…I’ve been doing it consistently for a long time and for me it doesn’t get better, it only gets more manageable. That’s why I keep doing it and why I would recommend that any person who suffers with asthma focus on doing whatever aerobic exercises they’re able to. The worst thing anyone could do is avoid it completely. As long as you’re taking your medication (as I do, twice a day and any time I feel short of breath) and you’ve learned where your limitations lie, then cardio can become a valuable way to assist in managing your symptoms.
I was diagnosed with asthma as a child, but many people only experience their first symptoms as adults. I’ve had my entire life to learn how far I can push myself before it becomes an issue. I’ve gone through basic military training, done 10k races, trained for fitness competitions, done powerlifting, figure skating, basketball and countless other physical activities all while managing my symptoms. I’ve learned how to interpret the messages my body sends me that very clearly say stop, I need oxygen. I know when my air exchange is not good enough (it’s even physically apparent by a reddening of eczema on my arms) and I have to slow down and give my body a change to correct itself.
There are many outside factors that can play a huge role in my success, though. The majority of my asthma triggers are directly linked to allergies. Running outside, for instance, poses a very interesting challenge.
What’s the weather like? Is it too dry? Too cold? Too hot? Is it going to rain today? Will I run by a house where they’ve just cut the grass or an area that’s particularly dusty?
Any of those things, and many more, can make or break my attempt to successfully complete a run. Dry and cold are my worst combination and where I am currently living happens to be the best place to find those conditions. Inside isn’t always better though.
What kind of cleaning products does this gym use? Are they scented? Will the person next to me be wearing body spray? Is is too dry? Too cold? Too hot?
Maybe I’m just getting over a cold or I did housework that day and had to vacuum and dust. The list of possible triggers can go on and on. In Canada, 500 adults die from asthma every year, many of which can be attributed to a lack of proper education. Asthma is a chronic and often debilitating disease that I don’t feel is appreciated for just how serious it truly is.
Being dedicated to fitness is about more than just aesthetics, it’s about overall wellness. That’s why it’s important for me, as an asthmatic, to push myself and keep myself as healthy as I can be within the limitations of my chronic illness. Things have gotten better for me over the years and I truly believe that exercise has contributed to that. My last serious asthma attack was in 2007, I used to have a chest cold once a month but now I get sick maybe twice a year and bounce back much quicker. Maybe someday it’ll be gone completely and I’ll never have to use another inhaler again, but until then I will keep exercising within my limits, hope that no one assumes anything about me based on my poor cardio skills, and hopefully be able to show other asthmatics that it’s not impossible to reach your fitness goals.