I’ve known for a long time that I don’t do well with extended aerobic exercise. I get intensely overwarm, to the point of nausea. I get lightheaded and have trouble thinking. I take a long time to recover, and frequently end up with a headache. I cough for hours afterward.
That last one, I knew was exercise-induced asthma. I didn’t know it when it started, in junior high track. I was given to believe I was malingering instead, that the problem was somehow shameful. But I figured it out some years later on my own.
I’ve mentioned it to doctors in intake interviews. None of them ever followed up. There were no questions about managing the condition, no tests to measure how impaired my breathing was, no suggestions even that I should have a rescue inhaler. They probably assumed that it was mild rather than self-diagnosed.
I didn’t have any way to gauge the severity of the problem either. I knew I couldn’t sustain activity that required me to breathe heavily, but I also knew the asthma kept me from training. I knew I coughed afterward, but I’d always done that without my breathing feeling particularly impaired.
Then I started my new job this summer.
Where a one-and-a-half mile walk to my last job downtown was comfortable, the two-and-a-half mile walk to the new job involved more time than I wanted to spend on my commute on a regular basis. I ordered a token for the city’s Nice Ride bike-sharing program to test how I felt about biking to work.
I hadn’t been on a bike in more than 20 years. The first morning was embarrassing. While it may be true that you never forget how to ride a bike, that doesn’t mean you never forget how to get the damned thing going, particularly for someone with balance issues like I have. Still, I rode it about two miles to the coffee shop nearest work.
Then I sat on a curb for fifteen minutes wondering whether I was going to pass out.
I didn’t, but I didn’t get coffee either. Sitting and breathing took up all the time I’d left for that. I wasn’t in great shape for walking the last half mile to work either. Crossing the busy road my building is on felt extra dangerous, because I was only able to focus very narrowly.
I wondered how I’d managed to get that far out of shape, since I could walk the whole way with just a bit of cough to show for it, and I determined to get better after giving myself a recovery day or two. A route change and some more biking did keep me from being completely incapacitated by the ride, but I still had to budget time for recovery on the work end. And I still showed up for work beet red, which is always fun.
I knew I wasn’t in good enough shape to tackle the hill just up the road from work, so I didn’t try riding home. I walked or took the bus, depending on my schedule, until the day I noticed there was a bike rack right next to the shop past the hill where I had to stop that evening. So I tried it.
I live on local high ground. It’s quite nice during our summer thunderstorms, less nice for biking. There were no other big hills after the one I skipped on my route home, but the near constant, gentle upward grade was still enough that I was in danger of passing out again by the time I got home.
This time, at least I could lie on the couch to recover. That was great, except for the part where I still felt near to passing out about an hour later. That’s when I went to go find my husband’s rescue inhaler. It was upstairs, which was minor torture, but it worked some.
Due to con crud, it wasn’t until this week that I got back to biking even semi-regularly. This time, I’ve been using the rescue inhaler for prophylaxis.
And I’ve discovered what exercise is supposed to feel like. I don’t mean endorphin rushes. I mean the ability not to worry whether I’ll reach my destination before I run out of steam. I mean 10- to 20-minute recovery times instead of dragging for a couple of hours. I mean still feeling clear-headed when I’m done (though some of that may the stimulant effect of the inhaler).
I finally understand that when people talk about torturing themselves with exercise, they don’t mean it literally. I always thought they did. This? It’s still work, but it’s not torture. I don’t have to pick and choose days that I can manage this safely. I don’t have to hold off on days I have to be sharp at the other end of my ride. This I can do any day that isn’t absurdly hot or rainy. As I’m getting used to it again, this isn’t even hard.
So now that I understand just how pathological my body’s response to aerobic exercise was, it’s time to make a doctor’s appointment to get it properly taken care of. Get it measured. Get it under control. Also, I’m still coughing after my rides.
I’ve been talking about this a little bit on Facebook and Twitter. I’m finding other people who have had undiagnosed or untreated asthma for much of their adult lives. I know other friends have been in the same boat. That’s a bunch of us limping along for years, not understanding that we had a significant barrier to getting—and enjoying—exercise.
So now I’m putting this here to tell all of you as well. Is intense aerobic exercise torture for you? Do you not recover for hours after you’re done? Do you ignore signs of asthma when you exercise because “It’s just a little cough”?
Stop ignoring them. Stop letting your doctor ignore them. Breathing is such a good thing.