I Love to Run. Here’s How I Do It With Exercise-Induced Asthma

Jennifer Espinosa-Goswami had never been healthier. She'd gone from morbidly obese teen to an adult with a new appreciation for running. And then she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. Here's how she copes—and keeps exercising.

Jenn Espinosa Goswami SelfieCourtesy Jenn Espinosa-Goswami

One in every 13 Americans has asthma, a respiratory condition that can cause wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Up to 90 percent of people with asthma have symptoms triggered by exercise, known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or exercise-induced asthma.  Included in that group are Olympic athletes and everyday exercisers like Jennifer Espinosa-Goswami, a certified holistic coach, professional speaker, and founder of Weightless.  Espinosa-Goswami lives in Minneapolis and was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma when she was 38. Here, she shares her story of decoding her confusing symptoms, finding treatments that helped (and those that didn’t), and learning to keep pursuing fitness even when exercise turned out to be one of her biggest asthma triggers.

Learning to love exercise

Confession: In middle school, I was intensely jealous of the kids with asthma since the condition gave them a pass to skip the hard stuff in gym class.

Back then, I was morbidly obese, absolutely hated running, and wished I had a medical excuse to skip the dreaded mile-run test. That’s how I thought of asthma then: a convenient excuse to skip exercise, not a life-altering illness.

Growing up changed my views on a lot of things, including exercise. Once I got to choose how, when, and where I ran, I fell in love with it. Running outdoors in the fall became one of my favorite pastimes, and I completed many races. Working out gave me a particular feeling of freedom and joy.

That is, until I developed exercise-induced asthma when I was about 36 years old.

(This woman discovered she had adult-onset asthma after a nearly fatal reaction to bee pollen.)

I woke up unable to breathe

I first started noticing symptoms when I adopted my dog, Betsy. It quickly became clear that I was allergic to dogs. Not only did I have congestion, runny eyes, and a chronic cough during the day, but I was wheezing while trying to sleep at night.

It got so bad that I would wake up because I was having a hard time catching my breath. At the time, I didn’t realize that this is a common symptom of adult-onset asthma.

Worst of all, it became difficult for me to maintain my breath while exercising, and I had to really reduce the amount and intensity of my workouts. This motivated me to talk to my doctor about all of my symptoms.

At 38 years old, I was diagnosed with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, a type of asthma triggered by exercise.

It was very disheartening. Even though I’d never felt healthier, I had to accept that any type of strenuous exercise could cause my airways to narrow, leading to worse asthma symptoms and sometimes terrifying asthma attacks.

At the same time, I was also diagnosed with several allergies, including hay, pollen, and pet dander, and these allergies could also worsen or trigger my asthma.

I hadn’t considered that I might have asthma, but once I was diagnosed, it made a lot of sense.

For my business, I record and share videos and livestreams, and looking back through old recordings, I noticed that it sounded like I was speaking with my nose plugged up. I would sneeze often and sniffle constantly. I realized that many of the videos in which I sounded the worst were recorded just minutes after a run or high-intensity workout.

What an asthma attack feels like to me

Not long after my diagnosis, we went to visit my daughter at college and stayed in a dog-friendly hotel. The pet allergy triggered one of the worst asthma attacks I’ve ever had.

I was up all night unable to breathe, even after multiple puffs of my rescue inhaler. It was scary—I couldn’t draw a complete breath, and absolutely couldn’t sleep.

I was on the verge of going to the emergency room but left the room to get some fresh air, and that helped enough for me to calm down. We switched hotel rooms, and while my symptoms were still bad, I was able to tolerate it better.

Getting my asthma under control

My doctor helped me come up with an asthma treatment plan to manage my daily symptoms and prevent future asthma attacks. For several years, I took Benadryl and Zyrtec daily and used a long-acting inhaler and nasal spray. I had to keep a separate rescue inhaler with me at all times.

I also found it helpful to use an air diffuser with a few drops of eucalyptus and mint essential oils in my home and put some oils on my wrists. This regimen got my asthma mostly under control, and I was able to live my daily life and return to working out, although not at the level I had been exercising before.

I didn’t love the thought of being dependent on all those medications forever, so I wanted to try everything and anything that might help my asthma.

For nearly a year, I did weekly allergy shots to try and reduce my sensitivity to dog dander, but they didn’t make much of a difference. In the end, I didn’t complete the entire course of treatment.

I also looked into holistic treatments, including body scanning—a meditative practice that involves tuning into your body—and breath work. They were calming but otherwise not very helpful. Breath work especially was challenging, as it requires long exhalations which are difficult for me to do.

I also tried chiropractic care after hearing about a chiropractor who claimed she was able to get some clients with asthma completely off their medications. I got treatments for several months—she did adjustments to open up my thoracic area—but I did not notice any improvement in my breathing or relief of my symptoms.

Running with exercise-induced asthma

I sometimes still struggle with breathing, but I have worked hard to reach a comfortable place, both with my lifestyle and support tools.

These days, I can mostly control my symptoms by avoiding my biggest triggers and using a saline nasal spray and essential oils.

I have to occasionally use Breo, my long-acting inhaler, and nighttime can be difficult for me because it’s hard to breathe through my nose with all of the congestion.

Occasionally my allergies will trigger a flare-up, and I will go back to using my medications. Springtime is the worst for my asthma, and I avoid outdoor exercises then.

One thing that has surprised me is how many runners have exercise-induced asthma and still run anyway. I’ve discovered that regular exercise actually helps so much to control my symptoms. It increases my lung capacity, improves my breath control, and helps me be healthier overall, which in turn helps my asthma.

It turns out that my childhood belief—that people with asthma don’t like to exercise and use their illness as an excuse to avoid it—is totally wrong. I have asthma and I still love to exercise!

—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, MS, is an award-winning journalist, author, and ghostwriter who for nearly two decades has covered health, fitness, parenting, relationships, and other wellness and lifestyle topics for major outlets, including Reader’s Digest, O, The Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and many more. Charlotte has made appearances with television news outlets such as CBS, NBC, and FOX. She is a certified group fitness instructor in Denver, where she lives with her husband and their five children.