By Helen Owton
It’s Wimbledon season again and many will be wondering whether champions Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic will repeat their 2014 winning performances; it’s worth remembering that both are asthmatic.
There are more than 230m people in the world with asthma and attacks result in a hospitalisation every seven minutes.
Sport can be a double-edged sword for people with asthma and even in the best of weather exercise can act as a stimulus, narrowing the airways and making it difficult to breathe. Around 80-90% of sufferers have exercise-induced asthma, which can trigger symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, tightness of the chest and breathlessness which can be caused by heat and water losses during exercise hyperventilation or endless streams of allergens such as pollution and pollen. If symptoms progress and become more severe, it can lead to a full-blown asthma attack where an overproduction of mucus further narrows the airways and limits oxygen intake.
So during May through to August, high pollen and pollution levels many are urged to reduce activity levels outdoors and keep their inhalers (normally the reliever) with them.
Yet, as Asthma UK points out, eight out of ten people with asthma aren’t doing enough exercise and as we know exercise has a number of positive effects including helping the heart, bones and digestive system to stay healthy, reducing stress and insomnia, and keeping unwanted weight off.
Other well-known sports asthmatics include swimmers Ian Thorpe, who reportedly took up sport as a way of dealing with his asthma, and Olympian Mark Foster, who has said “swimming can actually help because it teaches you breath control and how to make the most of your lung capacity … we are taught the best way to use all of our lungs not just a small part.” Foster said that in addition to taking a puff of his inhaler before every race, his coaches also kept a careful watch on his lung capacity and peak flow levels. Kvitova has said that she suffers worse symptoms in certain places and often arrives early before a tournament begins so her lungs can adjust.
Listening to your body
Sport can act as a distraction from asthma triggers and a way of ignoring the body. But asthma and sport are both central body experiences, that benefit from listening acutely to breathing patterns. Good breathing technique is fundamental to sport – and used alongside specific training designed to help professional sports people with their asthma, it can improve the experience of asthmatics.
“Deep listening” is an activity that requires careful, attunement to the nuanced and multiple layers of meaning enmeshed in sound. Asthma includes listening to sounds from the body: noisy heavy breathing, wheezing, coughing, panting, spluttering and sneezing. Some athletes develop acute attunement by identifying very subtle changes in their bodies in an attempt to anticipate and monitor their asthma and breathing.
Not only do athletes develop “deep listening” to their bodies, but “acute attentiveness to and active steadying of respiration, together with conscious efforts to relax and keep calm” is also required. With the benefit of experience and a developed attunement to their bodies’ responses, some sportspeople can learn what to expect during their sporting participation enabling them to feel more in control.
Therefore, many sportspeople can be more aware of their limitations when exercising, more in control of their breathing and know when not to push it to the max to avoid the onset of an asthmatic episode.
In research we carried out, some sportspeople said that, in general, they “did not listen to their bodies”, which often had later consequences such as a sudden onset of asthma after training or competing, along with feelings of panic and a reliance on an inhaler as a quick fix.
On the other hand, those who said that they “listened deeply” to their bodies, articulated an intelligent form of knowledge about their bodies which meant that while they couldn’t always engage in more activities, they did enjoy the activities in which they were able to participate and asthma seemed to be less disruptive to their daily lives.
Nonetheless, there are limits to the predictability of asthma and there are incidences where there can be an endless stream of potential allergens which takes conscientious efforts, precautionary measure and monitoring of bodily reactions.