It's 20 minutes before the West Valley Eagles' track club practice in Canoga Park and 7-year-old Brian Trejo is taking a deep breath on his inhaler. He breathes in until the blue bag holding his asthma medicine collapses, indicating all the medication has reached his lungs. This dose is just one of three or four he must take daily to help control his malady.
Despite his periodically severe asthma, the small brown-haired youngster is one of his team's best sprinters and long jumpers and has won an impressive bookful of blue and red ribbons in the last two years to prove it.
Brian is not the only young asthmatic who has taken up track and field with surprising results. Two dozen of his teammates--some of them the team's best runners and jumpers--are asthmatics as well. Not only are they finally able to participate in vigorous sports previously considered taboo, but their health is improving too.
Work Out Like Others
Aside from the youngsters' telltale inhalers at practice, there's no indication their lungs are impaired. They work out and train three to four nights a week like everyone else. And some, like Brian, have reported their asthma has improved and wheezing attacks are less frequent since they started running.
For the 3 million to 4 million asthmatic children in the United States (30% of the asthmatic population) stories like Brian's are encouraging. Studies indicate that the number of asthmatic children is growing as doctors have expanded their definition of the disease to include people who fatigue easily from exercise, who have chronic coughs, have recurrent bronchitis or lingering coughs after colds.
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes difficult and labored breathing. When an asthmatic's lungs are triggered by certain stimuli, air passages narrow, tissues swell and muscles constrict. Mucus blocks the airways even more. Stale air becomes trapped in the lungs, which, when forced out, causes the characteristic wheezing associated with the disease.
Parents of asthmatic children have awakened to hear their child gasping for breath, their eyes huge with fright.
"It sounds as if they're fighting for every breath," explained one parent.
"Your chest feels like a balloon ready to burst, but it can't," said another father who suffers from the disease himself.
Afraid of Inducing Attack
"If you've ever had a bad cold or pneumonia and woken up in the middle of the night and couldn't breathe, you know what these kids go through all the time. It scares the wits out of them," said a nurse who works with them. "That's why they're afraid to exercise--they're afraid of inducing an attack."
In the last decade, however, opportunities have opened up tremendously for asthmatic youngsters. Ten years ago doctors would advise their patients to sit on their duffs, careful not to overexert themselves. Notes to be excused from physical education class were common, and asthmatics suffered the stigma of being sickly.
Since then, experts have switched their position and begun advocating physical fitness, particularly aerobic exercise. Even running, once considered off-limits, has become popular.
"Doctors used to say move to Arizona and keep the kids inside. Not anymore," says Jess Trejo, Brian's father. "Our doctor said, don't make him an invalid. If he wants to run, let him."
Brian's allergist and pediatrician, Dr. Seymour Silverberg, explained that, "until recently doctors would have told you asthmatics shouldn't participate in track. Prolonged running would progress into exercise-induced asthma. You'd start getting the symptoms after three to eight minutes of exertions."
Improved medications and the 1984 Olympics changed all that. In the Olympics, 57 asthmatic athletes captured 41 medals. "Since the last Olympics there's no longer any question about asthmatics and running," said Silverberg.
A California study that followed 15 children with severe asthma through a rigorous six-week running program showed that while their fitness improved and they were able to run farther in the same amount of time, their asthma didn't get any worse.
Brian's parents are convinced that running has actually helped their son's condition. Both dedicated runners themselves, they have noticed an incredible change in Brian during track season.
Has Fewer Attacks
"I keep a diary of his attacks, how often and how long they last and I've seen the number of attacks go way down," said his mother, Cheryl. An attack can last from two hours to a week. "If he normally would have three attacks a week, during track he'd maybe have one. But his level of discomfort goes to almost zero."
While the medical evidence is still inconclusive, some preliminary research indicates that exercise may actually improve asthma by reducing sensitivity of the air passages. It also seems to build endurance and expand the lungs' capacity.