When Jillian Sweet, age 32, learned she had allergy-induced asthma, she didn't let it slow her down. If anything, the Memphis-based financial services professional got even more active after her 2004 diagnosis. Four years ago, she picked up a new hobby: running marathons.
One in 12 people has asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For asthmatic athletes like Jillian, the condition can be particularly tricky. Although exercise can increase lung performance and reduce asthma's symptoms, physical exertion is a common trigger for asthma attacks.
"Since I started running, I breathe better and sleep better," she explains. "And I'm more in tune with my body. That helps me control my asthma and have a healthier life in general."
So, what's the solution for athletes with asthma? A combination of taking the right medication, practicing healthy breathing techniques and, as highlighted by the CDC, avoiding common triggers.
Growing up, Jillian played a few team sports, along with gymnastics and dance. But after school, she no longer had an athletic outlet. "At my age, there aren't many team sports to get involved in," she explains. "Most adults take workout classes or go to the gym, which have never been fun for me."
Then about four years ago, a friend from work talked Jillian into running her first race — a 5K for St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis. She loved the experience and has been doing it ever since. "Running races keeps you competitive," says Jillian. "It makes you want to work harder and prove yourself."
Running also keeps Jillian social. "I've made a lot of good friends through running groups," she adds. "I even got my dad involved. He had a heart attack and stroke a few years ago, and I thought running would be good for him, too. Now I can't get him to stop; he's done three marathons in the past year."
Jillian had no problems with asthma until college. "I was coughing uncontrollably, especially at night," she recalls. Finally, the campus doctor sent Jillian to an allergist, who diagnosed her with allergy-triggered asthma. "I didn't really get it under control until I started running," she says. "Then I couldn't ignore it anymore."
To keep her asthma symptoms in check, Jillian uses an inhaler every day and receives allergy shots regularly. "I've never had a hard asthma attack, because I'm very proactive about following my doctor's advice," Jillian explains. "When I'm doing a race or a long run, I take one puff on a rescue inhaler 10 minutes before running. That usually keeps me from having an attack."
Last year, during a 5K race, Jillian started wheezing as she headed into the home stretch. So she stopped, used her inhaler and walked the rest of the way. "I just have to pay close attention to my body and give it what it needs," no matter where that may be.
To ensure her safety while training, Jillian rarely runs alone and always takes a medic alert bracelet and inhaler with her. She is also careful about when and where she runs. Because many athletes with asthma feel symptoms worsen in cold weather, she runs indoors more often during winter. In spring and summer, she avoids running in the morning, when pollen counts tend to be highest. She adds, "I also pay close attention to whether I'm breathing properly — in through the mouth and out through the nose."
Jillian says running has made her happier and healthier, and even improved her asthma over time. "Since I started running, I breathe better and sleep better," she explains. "My diet is better, because now I'm eating for fuel, not just for pleasure. And I'm more in tune with my body. That helps me control my asthma and have a healthier life in general."
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