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Winning the Gold with Asthma

By Owen C. Franklin

"I'm probably a better swimmer now than I would be if I'd never had asthma."

The word "asthma" rarely evokes images of thriving athletes. For many people, asthma sufferers are the allergy-plagued, wheezing wallflowers they knew in high school.

Unfortunately, this image can make its way into the minds of asthma sufferers themselves. Many people with asthma learn, at an early age, that exercise is simply not for them.

But this frail and feeble stereotype is going the way of the dinosaur — its fossils buried by our growing asthma awareness, and people like Olympic swimmer Tom Dolan.

Olympic asthma

At the age of twelve, Tom Dolan began a lifelong competition with asthma.

"I just felt it one day outside during recess," said Dolan. "The weather was cold and I felt that tightness in my chest and that was the first time I noticed anything."

In many cases, an asthma diagnosis means a life sentence. It starts with notes to get out of gym class and sitting on the sidelines and can lead to a sedentary lifestyle where running to catch the bus becomes a Herculean feat.

But this was not the case for Tom Dolan. In 1996, Dolan claimed the Olympic gold medal in 400-meter Individual Medley in swimming.

"I see (asthma) as a challenge. I’ve turned it around as a positive," said Dolan.

"I’m probably a better swimmer now than I would be if I’d never had asthma."

Everyday heroes

Across the board, people with asthma are becoming "better" athletes. According to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, at least one sixth of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team had a history of asthma. Track and field gold medallist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Olympic cyclist Curt Harnett and speed skater Susan Auch all took this disease in stride as they climbed to the highest ranks of athletic performance.

How do they do it? Asthma experts say people who manage their asthma correctly can aim as high as they please.

"The first thing you want to do is make sure the asthma is well controlled," said Dr. Phillip Korenblat, an allergist and professor of clinical medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine. "Once it is, we’d like (people with asthma) to try to do anything that other people can do."

Today, it’s easier for people with asthma to manage their disease than ever before. The development of peak flow meters and new medicines, such as longer-acting bronchiodialators, enable people more flexibility in fitting in fitness.

Exercise, for some people with asthma, can actually encourage better asthma control. As many people know, exercise can inspire a person to take better charge of their health in other areas of their life.

"It makes you feel healthy," said Dr. Korenblat. "If someone wants to feel better, they may pay more attention to their asthma management."

The asthmatic trap

A simple question may be asked: with all these medical resources and examples of athletes with asthma, why aren’t more people with asthma exercising?

The problem could simply be a lack of public awareness.

"It’s astounding to me," said Dolan, who works on asthma awareness projects. "I still hear the stories of gym teachers who don’t allow kids with asthma to participate in sports or parents saying that kids should be left out of class."

People who study asthma say this problem becomes cyclical: exercise is an integral part of human development — a child who learns that exercise is dangerous may be reluctant to face challenges later in life.

"It can’t be to their advantage if they are held out of exercise," said Susan Janson, Ph.D., R.N., A.N.P., an asthma specialist and the Director of the Nurse Practitioner Program at the University of California, San Francisco. "What happens is you end up with a child that feels ‘less than’ others around him and sets his sight or aspirations lower."

A risky pattern

In some cases, a cyclical problem can become a downward spiral.

Gloria Thornton, Director of Health Education for the San Francisco Health Plan, says children who are marginalized from healthy, constructive groups may seek inclusion in alternative — and sometimes dangerous — circles.

"This can lead to risky behavior," said Thornton. "Kids want to belong and may try unhealthy things like drugs and smoking, just to find that group to belong in."

Thornton, like many public health administrators, sees a potential solution. The San Francisco Health Plan, in conjunction with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Inc., will take part in a national campaign this year to teach children with asthma that exercise is, in fact, for them.

Breaking the cycle

The 8 week program, entitled "Eagle’s Circles", marries an exercise club with a support group. For one hour, twice a week, children will meet at schools, community centers and hospital to participate in 40 minutes of exercise and 20 minutes of discussion.

The program, carried out by volunteers, respiratory therapists and physicians, teaches children different stretches, yoga, martial arts, step aerobics, strength training and team sports.

"After they exercise, they feel nice and relaxed," said James Sgritto, Manager of the Pediatric Health team at Pfizer. "We utilize that nice mellow feeling to run out a rap group."

During the discussions, children can share stories, questions and concerns of living with asthma. In addition, the group shows each child that he or she is not alone.

All this aims, in part, to break the cyclical problems that asthma can create.

"We’re trying to change people’s belief system," said Sgritto. "If you stop them from exercising, they will more likely gain extra weight. If you ask them to participate in any physcial activity such as climb a flight of stairs or catch a bus, they’re going to be out of breath."

Hopefully, with new research and education, stairs will no longer pose obstacles, and more busses will be taking people with asthma to participate in the Olympic games.

"People need to realize asthma is something that a lot of people have and a lot of people have been successful with," said Dolan. "You can still go out and have fun."

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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