Harlem Word: Dr. Ben Ortiz discusses exercising with asthma

Editor July 30th, 2008

Many people think that having asthma means they can't exercise. But without exercise people are at higher risk for being overweight or obese. Should adults and kids with asthma avoid exercise, especially if they have a weight problem? We sat down with Dr. Ben Ortiz to find out the truth about asthma and exercise.

Dr. Ortiz is a physician and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Harlem Hospital Center /Columbia University. He is also the Assistant Medical Director of the Harlem Children Zone's Asthma Initiative.

Q: Asthma and obesity are both big problems in Harlem. Do they have anything to do with each other?

A: Having asthma and being overweight do seem to be connected. But it's important for people to know that one doesn't cause the other. They are two different problems that play together. Adults in Harlem who have asthma are not all overweight. But the overweight ones tend to experience more asthma symptoms than those who aren't overweight. People with asthma who are physically fit have less trouble breathing and don't have to go the hospital as often.

Q: Does that mean that it's okay for people with asthma to exercise?

A: Yes, absolutely. You might think that exercise is bad for asthma, but it's really good for this condition! Exercise can help a person manage their asthma because it strengthens lungs, requires one to learn new breathing techniques, and builds endurance. Asthma doesn't have to limit the type of exercise a person does, either. Aerobics, for example, is particularly good for asthma, as is weight training, running, and swimming. Avoiding exercise because you have asthma will only make things worse for the asthma condition and add a variety of other health problems associated with weight gain. You can improve your asthma and your weight by exercising.

Q: Is there anything special that people with asthma need to know before they exercise?

A: People with asthma should know the difference between an asthma attack and exercise fatigue. When you're exercising, you might get tired and start breathing fast - that's called exercise fatigue. But you shouldn't feel your chest get tight like it does when you have an asthma attack. Knowing this difference will help you figure out how much exercise your body can handle. Also, using your inhaler and other asthma medications as prescribed will make it possible for you to be more physically active.

Q: Is all of this information about asthma, weight, and exercise true for children, too?

A: Yes, it's true for both adults and children. In fact, there's an even stronger connection between asthma and obesity in children. My co-workers and I have done a study in Harlem that tells us that overweight girls and boys are more likely to have asthma than kids of normal weight. Parents need to deal with both asthma and weight gain to protect their children's health. They can do this by helping their kids to be active and to learn about eating healthy foods.

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