Swimming with Asthma


DENVER, CO — For the more than 6 million children with asthma in the United States, finding ways to safely exercise and stay fit can be a challenge.


Physical activity is essential for lung function and overall fitness levels, but fearing asthma attacks, some children and their parents avoid it.


“It can be a dilemma for many families,” said Tod Olin, M.D., a pediatric pulmonary specialist at National Jewish Health in Denver. “All it takes is one asthma attack, and suddenly patients can become very tentative about overdoing it.”


Dr. Olin says there is one activity that parents of any child with asthma should consider. “When it comes to cardio activities that are well-tolerated, swimming, specifically, is highly recommended, particularly in indoor swimming pools.”


Dr. Olin says the humidity associated with indoor swimming pools tends to protect against asthma attacks by keeping airways open. Conversely, it’s when children exercise in cool, dry air that problems with asthma typically occur.


“We think that the way asthma attacks happen is that the airways dry out, and that sets off a cascade of reactions that ultimately squeezes down the airway,” said Dr. Olin. “If we can prevent that initial airway-drying step by staying in a humid environment, we prevent the asthma attack all together.”


Like many children, 11-year-old Kristian Jackson struggled for years to find safe ways to exercise. “Whenever it would start to flare, my shoulders would go up, and it felt tight, like I was blacking out or going to faint,” he said. “It was really scary.”


Then, Jackson enrolled at Morgridge Academy on the campus of National Jewish Health in Denver. Morgridge Academy is a school specifically for children with chronic conditions who need daily medical treatments, and there, swimming is actually part of the curriculum.


“When Kristian first came to our school, he had been hospitalized for asthma and was having constant emergency room visits,” said Jennifer McCullough, director of education at Morgridge Academy. “Since he’s been here, all of that has been dramatically reduced.”


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