Control Asthma Through Exercise

Once told not to exercise, a woman with asthma now runs marathons and backpacks.

By Colleen Frankhart, Contributing Writer

Diagnosed with exercise- and allergy-induced asthma at age 4, Denise Garratt heard a steady refrain during her childhood and teenage years: “Take it easy. Don’t run. You have to be careful.”

That was then, this is now: Garratt has walked one marathon, is about to complete her third half-marathon as a runner, and credits exercise with keeping her nearly free of asthma symptoms for the past three years. Her mantra these days? “Live life and don’t be afraid,” she says.

Almost 49 percent of people who have asthma or other chronic breathing problems battle moderate to severe depression, compared with 10 percent of the general population. Physician-approved exercise can improve their quality of life in two ways. Not only has it long been known that exercise can help alleviate depression, but research has also found that regular exercise may help control asthma symptoms in some people.

Becoming physically active, with her doctor’s support and advice, has helped Garratt feel like she’s in control of her asthma rather than living in fear of it. A diagnosis like asthma “isn’t a sentence that condemns you to a specific way of life,” she says. That’s an important message for anyone with a respiratory disease who feels discouraged about her health.

Garratt was inspired to walk her first marathon, a fundraiser for leukemia research, in memory of her mother-in-law, who died of that disease in early 2009. “The more I trained, the better my asthma became,” Garratt remembers. “When I crossed that finish line, it was incredibly emotional.”

Today, she rarely has asthma symptoms. She recently backpacked through Yosemite National Park without ever needing her inhaler.

“If anyone had ever told me that I—the kid who was always picked last in P.E., who wound up in the emergency room with asthma attacks countless times—could someday become a distance runner, it would have saved me so much heartache,” she says. “I feel better now than I ever have in my life.”