How to Exercise Safely With Allergies

8 Min Read

We all know how important exercise is for our well-being; with the benefits spanning from a reduced risk of major illnesses to improved mental health. However, there is a chance that those who have been diagnosed with an allergy might be hesitant to exercise as it can sometimes worsen symptoms.

We thought it might be useful for those who want to keep fit but feel as though their allergies could be holding them back, to highlight some safer exercise techniques. We got in touch with Maureen Jenkins, Clinical Director at Allergy UK, to get an expert insight into exercising safely when you have an allergy.

When you are diagnosed with an allergy your doctor will no doubt tell you that the most effective prevention method is avoidance. This means actively avoiding the allergen which causes your unwanted symptoms, which can be easier said than done; especially when it comes to allergic rhinitis, more commonly known as hay fever.

How Pollen Affects the Body

For some people, breathing in pollen particles can trigger an allergic reaction characterized by sneezing and swelling of the face and airways. Hay fever is often associated with the UK’s warmer months, and this is because 95 percent of people with hay fever are allergic to grass pollen which is released from May to mid-September. Numerous different types of pollen are constantly being released into the atmosphere by various plants and trees. To effectively avoid the pollen causing your allergy you need to narrow down the specific type to which your body is averse to.

Food-Dependent Exercise-Induced Anaphylaxis

It is not just hay fever that has the potential to cause problems when it comes to exercising. As Maureen explains: ‘Severe allergic reactions, can also rarely be brought on by exercise. A condition called exercise-induced anaphylaxis (EIA) is triggered by physical exertion.

‘Those with EIA are advised not to take aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or consume alcohol within a few hours after exercise. A more complex variant, food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis (FDEIA), is when anaphylaxis occurs within 3-4 hours after eating a particular food. Consuming that food or exercise alone does not induce anaphylaxis.’

Your doctor will be able to offer personalized advice on managing either EIA or FDEIA and including exercise as part of your lifestyle.

Choosing Alternative Workout Regimes

It is understandable that the prospect of exercising and the potential for a bad reaction might scare those living with allergies, particularly if they have had a frightening experience in the past. However, you shouldn’t give up on exercise entirely. Maureen explains ‘There is no need to skip exercise. Simply adapt your routine so that you exercise indoors or outside in the middle of the day when pollen particles are at their highest point in the atmosphere, and less likely to affect you.’

There are different methods you can try to find something that suits you and your condition. Swap running on the open road for a treadmill in the gym or an indoor exercise class, or switch to swimming for a low-impact full-body workout.

For many of us, training in the outdoors provides the perfect opportunity to get some fresh air into our lungs. However, this might have the opposite effect if you’re battling hay fever symptoms. When pollen levels are particularly high you might experience exacerbated symptoms including difficulty breathing.

In such instances, Maureen advises ‘Any exercise is good but on days when the pollen count is high, it is sensible to exercise indoors.’ Having a good understanding of your allergy and remembering to check pollen levels will help you to make the best choices when it comes to exercise.

Exercising Outside: Precautionary Measures

If you are set on exercising outside then it might be wise to take heed of the following precautions outlined by Maureen: ‘Use a nasal balm or barrier spray to prevent pollens entering the nostrils and wear wrap-around sunglasses. Take a daily non-sedating antihistamine, as well as a nasal steroid spray if symptoms are troublesome. Change clothes as soon as you come home, and shower and wash your hair to remove pollens. If you also have asthma always keep your blue rescue inhaler to hand. Plan your route to avoid expanses of grass or trees or high-rise city areas.

If you prepare sufficiently in advance then you should be able to safely participate in outdoor activities and avoid a negative reaction. Maureen advises ‘Exercising outdoors on days when there is a high pollen count without taking precautions will exacerbate hay fever symptoms, because pollens will cause inflammation, nasal blockages, eye symptoms and in some, asthma symptoms.’

Allergy symptoms may be exacerbated by physical exertion as an increase in heart rate pumps blood around the body quicker resulting in the allergens infiltrating our system at a faster rate. A common allergic reaction is swollen airways which can be particularly problematic if you are unable to take in sufficient oxygen whilst attempting to maintain a higher level of exertion.

Don’t Give Up

Experiencing an asthma attack during exercise can undoubtedly be dangerous, and your chances of having one might be higher if the correct precautions are not followed. But Maureen says that ‘Regular exercise benefits most people, particularly those with allergic asthma. Some people have exercise-induced asthma, which means that airways go into spasm on immediate hard exertion or exercising in the cold or damp.’

‘Exercise in someone with allergic asthma is recommended, but those with exercise-induced asthma should take two puffs of their (blue) reliever inhaler beforehand; starting to exercise slowly while keeping their rescue inhaler within reach. If exercising at the time of year when pollen is likely to affect them, then they should also take an antihistamine.’

Nobody should expect to go from doing zero exercises to running a marathon straight away. Strength and fitness are built up over time and this is important to remember particularly if you have allergies.

If you want to introduce exercise into your life it’s important that you get to know your allergy and your particular triggers. If you do have hay fever, take some time to figure out which particular pollen particles (grass, tree, weeds) your body reacts to. This way you can track the pollen count and avoid exercising outdoors when your allergen is highly concentrated.

Points to remember:

  • Get to know your allergy – what are your triggers?
  • Track the pollen count and plan accordingly
  • Have alternative indoor exercise options ready in case of worsened symptoms
  • Make sure you have enough anti-allergy medication to help limit your chances of an allergic reaction
  • Be sensible – don’t beat yourself up if you have to skip your regular exercise routine due to a flare-up

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Tom Perry, M.D., attended Tulane University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. degree in Parasitology. He received his M.D. degree in 1983 from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where he gained extensive research experience, including studies conducted through the National Institutes of Health.