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Losing weight can help you gain better control of your asthma and reduce the severity of attacks, as well as lower your risk of a host of other health concerns. The obvious catch here, though, is that asthma challenges your breathing, making physical activity for weight loss all the more challenging—especially if your asthma is exercise-induced. You may face other difficulties with weight loss as well.
Obstacles aside, achieving a healthy weight is a possible undertaking, as well as a worthwhile one—not only for your overall health, but for the management of your asthma symptoms.
The first step should be talking with a healthcare provider about a reasonable goal and what can help you reach it safely.
Link Between Weight and Asthma
Research indicates that excess weight increases asthma risk. Specifically, asthma is more common in people with overweight and obesity compared with those with “normal” weight.
It’s unclear why, but the risk of asthma is even greater among people assigned female at birth who are overweight or obese. About 8% of people assigned female at birth who are considered “lean” have asthma, compared to almost 15% of those considered obese.
Rates are also higher in overweight African American and Hispanic people assigned male at birth.
Studies show that simply having more fatty tissue can increase your overall amount of inflammation, and metabolic abnormalities may lead to changes in the lungs that contribute to respiratory diseases—including asthma.
Carrying additional weight in and of itself can make breathing more difficult by compressing your lungs, potentially making existing asthma worse and symptoms harder to cope with and manage.
What Is Obese Asthma?
Newer research has established what’s being called obese asthma, a condition that appears to have distinct characteristics that separate it from asthma in non-obese people, and even from some cases of asthma in people with obesity.
A major finding is that the inflammation that leads to narrowed airways appears to come from a different mechanism. While those with obese asthma tend to have reduced lung capacity, experience more severe symptoms, and be more treatment-resistant, they also tend to no longer have asthma after losing weight.
Motivations and Challenges
If you’re considered overweight and have asthma, you face certain weight loss challenges that other people don’t.
If your asthma limits your ability to exercise, it could be responsible for some of your weight gain and will likely make it harder for you to rely on physical activity to reach your weight loss goal.
Furthermore, conditions that frequently overlap with obesity can make asthma symptoms worse while robbing you of energy and motivation, making following a weight loss plan more difficult. Such conditions include:
There’s no denying that all of this makes it harder for you to manage your weight. But that certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t—or that you shouldn’t.
It may take time—maybe even more than you expect—and you may have setbacks. But remember that even a small amount of weight loss can greatly improve asthma symptoms and overall health. And the more you lose, the easier you may find it to keep going.
In a randomized clinical trial, 83% of asthma patients reported a better quality of life and 58% showed improved asthma control after they lost between 5% and 10% of their body weight as a result of diet and exercise.
Even a change of five pounds, according to research, affects the likelihood of an attack, impacts everyday activities, and alters the need for emergency steroid treatments to control asthma symptoms.
Even if you don’t lose weight, better respiratory health (from exercise) and an anti-inflammatory diet may contribute to better health and less severe asthma.
Asthma Doctor Discussion Guide
Get our printable guide for your next doctor’s appointment to help you ask the right questions.
Crafting a Weight Loss Plan
To start losing weight, create a weight loss plan with a healthcare provider. Be sure you know:
- How much weight loss to shoot for
- How long you should expect it to take
Having a clear sense of these two things from the start is important for managing your expectations and staying motivated.
Next, be accountable for meeting that goal by weighing yourself every day and recording your weight on a chart on a smartphone app or just a piece of paper.
This can be difficult because you’ll see fluctuations, including days when your weight goes up even when you’ve done all the “right” things. Don’t worry about those increases. The goal is to help you see the changes—even if they are very small to start with.
Along with charting your weight loss, record how you feel day-to-day. Is your breathing labored? Did you need your inhaler? This data will help identify what’s working as well as what aspects of the plan may need modification.
Exercise will surely be a part of any weight loss plan, but making changes to your diet is a great place to start as your asthma doesn’t complicate your efforts and it may offer you early “wins” that motivate you to stay the course.
What and How You Eat
Reducing your calorie intake is hard, but it may help to think in think in three-day cycles. Tell yourself that you only need to fight the temptation to eat more or indulge in high-calorie foods for the next three days.
If you can get through those first 72 hours on a reduced-calorie intake, you’ll likely feel some sense of accomplishment that can propel your success in completing your next three-day goal.
Eventually, this will get a little easier as you adapt to fewer calories and healthier meals.
Planning meals is the key to eating right. Calculating the calories and writing out every meal is a common approach. To lose at least a pound a week, you’ll need to cut your current daily calorie intake per day by 500 calories.
You may be able to lose more weight if you reduce that even more; however, very low-calorie diets can be unhealthy. Don’t be overly restrictive and discuss a strategy with a healthcare provider.
Once you know the target number of calories to consume in a day, you need to divide that up and dedicate a certain amount to each meal and snack.
For example, if your target is 2,000 calories per day, you could consume about 400 calories per meal four times a day, plus two light 200-calorie snacks.
Play around with those numbers to see what works for you. It may help to keep a list of ideas for 400-calorie meals and 200-calorie snacks so you have them ready when you crave some variety in your diet.
You might also take advantage of the numerous online resources and apps that can help you figure out the number of calories in different foods so you can plan some easy-to-prep meals.
To make your planning easier, you might choose to follow a well-researched healthy diet such as:
Prepare for Hungry Moments
Reducing your caloric intake and increasing your activity will inevitably leave you feeling hungry sometimes, particularly as your body adjusts to these changes.
End the urge to nibble on whatever is on hand by being prepared for times when your stomach growls between meals.
Keep healthy snacks with you during the day for times when you’re out and need a little something. When you’re at home or attending an event, turn to fruit and vegetables, which can be made more exciting with healthy dips.
Look for Fat Alternatives
It can be counterproductive to give up on fat altogether in your diet, as certain unsaturated fats—like those in nuts, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and avocados—offer health benefits and can help you feel satiated.
Make an effort to choose these healthier fats over other options. When you’re looking for a favorite food that may not quite fit with your diet, seek out and make lower-fat versions that still satisfy you. For example:
- Swap a beef burger for ground turkey or a plant-based option
- Cut up and bake potatoes with some sea salt to make “fries” that aren’t fried
- Roast or bake chicken instead of frying it
- Switch to lower fat milk and yogurt instead of full-fat dairy
Eat Slow, Wait 20 Minutes
Your brain takes some time to process the fact that you’ve had enough to eat. Eating quickly means you don’t realize you’re full until well after you’ve hit that point, typically resulting in overeating.
Try slowing down. Eat a reasonable serving of food. Then, wait at least 20 minutes and drink a glass of water. Often, you’ll find yourself feeling full once (or sometimes before) that break is up.
Exercising With Asthma
In addition to decreasing the number of calories you take in, a good weight loss plan will include increasing the number of calories you burn.
You can burn hundreds of calories with a 30-minute intense workout. But if you have asthma, especially exercise-induced asthma, that’s likely not realistic. It may also be too much for you if you’ve been largely sedentary.
When adopting a new routine for physical activity, you need to be aware of your asthma triggers and how to workout without having an exercise-induced asthma attack.
This may mean starting slowly and gradually increasing the length and intensity of your workouts. If cold air or pollen triggers symptoms, it may mean exercising inside on days with low temperatures or high pollen counts.
Making a practical plan for increasing your calorie expenditure is the best way to ensure you stay healthy and stick with the routine.
Set Aside Five Minutes a Day
Most experts recommend beginning with just a short workout every day. It won’t burn 200 calories, but it will get you moving. Start with five minutes a day, seven days a week.
Any kind of exercise will work, but limiting (though not cutting out) cardiovascular activities at first may be best for those with asthma. Increase cardio as you’re able, since it’s one of the better ways of burning fat.
In week one, experiment with crunches, push-ups, and then maybe a few jumping jacks or running in place. Just don’t stop moving for five minutes each session.
The following week, try to increase your workout time by five minutes each day. Then, increase it every week by two minutes each session. Soon you’ll be working out for 30 minutes a day.
The more you build up your heart and lungs, the more you lower your risk for an asthma attack during exercise.
To reduce the risk of asthma attacks, ease into a workout with fifteen minutes of warming up.
Then, focus on activities that are less risky for people with asthma—that is, those with short, intermittent periods of exertion.
If you favor team sports or an organized class, choose something like volleyball or baseball. Activities that involve sustained long periods of exertion, like soccer, running, or basketball, are more likely to trigger your asthma.
Cold-weather sports like ice hockey, cross-country skiing, and ice-skating may be activities to avoid at first until you get your heart and lungs in the best shape possible.
Of course, team sports aren’t for everyone. You can build a work-out routine that incorporates a warm-up followed by a low-intensity workout with short, intense bursts. For example:
- Walking for your warm-up, then jogging for a while with occasional sprints, or stopping here and there to do some jumping jacks
- A moderate-intensity bike ride (stationary or outside) with periodic higher-intensity pedaling
- A yoga, tai chi, Pilates, or weight lifting session followed by a few minutes of intense cardio
Control Asthma During Exercise
Once you decide which activities to incorporate into your weight-loss strategy, formulate an asthma action plan so you aren’t caught unprepared if symptoms should arise.
For example, always use your preventive asthma medications or an inhaler before exercise if prescribed by a healthcare provider. Also keep your rescue inhaler with you.
If you are working out at a gym, with a physical trainer, or a partner, make them aware of your asthma and what to do in an emergency.
Also be sure to:
- Monitor your surroundings for possible triggers
- Skip your workout if have a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu
- Exercise at a level that is appropriate for your overall health. As a precaution, always do less than you think you can until you are confident about how an activity will effect you.
If asthma symptoms arise or worsen when you are exercising, take a break and follow your asthma action plan. Do not push yourself so hard that you overlook warning signs of an asthma attack.
When to Consider Weight Loss Surgery
Several studies have suggested that weight loss from bariatric surgery improves asthma control in patients with obesity.
One study stated that asthma medication refills decreased by as much as 50% following bariatric surgery, and asthma patients have shown a decrease in symptoms and improvements in pulmonary function tests five years following their procedures.
While these reports are promising, bariatric surgery is a fairly radical step and shouldn’t be viewed as an easy solution. The procedure comes with considerable risks and complications.
For starters, surgery isn’t really an alternative to diet and exercise, but rather something that’s added to them. The post-surgery requirements are a big commitment, and the surgery’s success largely hinges on how well they are adhered to.
On the other hand, if you have severe asthma and haven’t been able to lose weight through diet and exercise, this may be the right step for you. Discuss the risks and benefits with a healthcare provider. It’s a decision that bears thoughtful consideration with an eye on what’s best for your overall health.