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Exercise intolerance in obese children--is it asthma?


Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood. It is estimated that 11.2% of the U.S. population has at some time been diagnosed with asthma, (1) and that about 5 million children across the U.S. are affected. (1) Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness. (2) Untreated asthma may result in serious consequences, including lost school or work days, costly hospitalizations, and possibly death. Obesity (defined as body mass index > 95th percentile for age) is increasing in prevalence in children. Data from NHANES I (1971-1974) to NHANES 2003-2004 show increases in overweight among all age groups: Among preschool-aged children, aged 2-5 years, the prevalence of overweight increased from 5.0% to 13.9%; among school-aged children, aged 6-11 years, the prevalence of overweight increased from 4.0% to 18.8%; and among school-aged adolescents, aged 12-19 years, the prevalence of overweight increased from 6.1% to 17.4%. (3) Given the increasing prevalence of both asthma and obesity in childhood, it is possible that a link exists between these two conditions. The medical literature has few studies that address this question.

Gold et al examined the incidence of asthma in a longitudinal study of 9,828 children age 6 - 14 years in six US cities over a five year period. (4) Girls who were heavier at baseline were more likely to have asthma and the risk of developing asthma over the observation period increased with increasing BMI. Similarly, Castro-Rodriguez, et al found that girls who became overweight or obese between ages 6 and 11 were seven times more likely to develop new asthma between ages of 11 and 13 years. (5) A relationship between BMI at age 6 and wheezing prevalence at any age was not found. In an analysis of outcomes of childhood asthma in adolescent years, Guerra, et al found that the mean BMI was higher in a group with poorly controlled asthma (6) suggesting that obesity adversely affects asthma control. Other studies have suggested that weight reduction improves symptoms and lung function in obese adults with asthma. (6,7) Obese individuals often have exercise intolerance which is attributed to deconditioning. The present study sought to provide information on the prevalence of undiagnosed asthma in obese children who complain of shortness of breath with exercise.


Children age 6 to 18 years were eligible for the study if they had BMI > 95th percentile for age, and exercise induced shortness of breath (see figure 1). The questions outlined in figure 2 were asked, and to qualify for the study, the first two questions had to be answered affirmatively, and the last three had to be answered "no". Standard spirometry was performed at rest, with measurement of forced vital capacity (FVC), and forced exhaled volume in one second (FEV1). The reference values of Polgar (9) for pediatric patients were used, with normal values for these parameters and for the ratio of FEV1/FVC being greater than 80%. If the test was deemed abnormal, an inhaled bronchodilator (albuterol) was administered via jet nebulizer, and the test was test repeated after 10 to 15 minutes. An increase in 12% in FEV1 indicated a positive response to bronchodilator. If there was no response to bronchodilator, or if the test was deemed normal, patients were scheduled for an exercise challenge test, using a standard treadmill exercise protocol. (10) After completing the exercise protocol, spirometry was performed at 5, 10, 15, and 20 minutes, and a positive response was a drop in FEV1 > 12% from baseline for the diagnosis of exercise induced asthma to be made. If there was no drop in FEV1, the test was deemed normal, and the results were interpreted as unlikely to be asthma

The proportion of tested children with asthma was calculated by dividing the number with either an abnormal spirometry with bronchodilator response, or a positive exercise test, by the total number of subjects enrolled. No other statistical analyses were performed.

Figure 2.
Screening Questionnaire

1) Do you get out of breath with exercise or physical activity?

2) Do you have to stop exercising because of difficulty catching your

3) Do you have asthma?

4) Are you using any inhalers/nebulizers or other treatments for
breathing problems?

5) Has anyone prescribed Albuterol or other medications for breathing
problems in the last year?

If you answer "yes" to questions 1 and 2 and "no" to questions 3, 4,
and 5 you will be eligible for the study.


Twenty patients were entered into the study (see Table 1). Their ages ranged from 7 to 16 years, and BMI ranged from 22.1 Kg/m2 to 61.3, Kg/m2 and nine were male. Mean BMI was. 37.9 Kg/m2. Of the 19 who completed the study, nine met criteria for asthma. Four had abnormal spirometry with significant bronchodilator response, another five had normal resting spirometry but had significant drop in FEV1 at exercise testing, and the remaining nine had normal spirometry and no drop in FEV1 post exercise.


In this study, nearly half of the obese children and adolescents who become short of breath with exertion were found to have asthma. This finding suggests that many obese children are not just "deconditioned", but may actually have exercise induced bronchospasm. Although several recent studies link obesity and asthma, to our knowledge this is the first prospective study that examines the frequency of asthma in obese children. Being able to exercise is an important factor in most weight loss programs. Gym coaches and teachers also tend to attribute obese students inability to exercise as being "out of shape". Physicians and school officials alike should consider the possibility of asthma in children and adolescents who are overweight and who have difficulty exercising.

The study was limited by several factors. First, the population eligible for enrollment was a very select one, drawing from obese patients who were referred for weight management to an adolescent cardiovascular fitness program. Other obese children not referred to the program may also have asthma, at rates higher or lower than detected in our study. We also did not seek to utilize a control group of non-obese patients with dyspnea on exertion, to compare their rates of asthma to those of the obese study population.

This is a small pilot study meant to provide information on the association between dyspnea on exertion and exercise induced asthma; we did not intend to imply causality. Larger studies are needed to further support this association, as well as to evaluate possible mechanisms. Future trials are needed to evaluate whether weight loss would improve asthma in overweight children, and conversely, whether improved asthma control would foster weight loss in this population.

Another limitation is that an asthma diagnosis or any previous use of asthma medications excluded patients from entry into the study. Several patients were not offered the study because they had received bronchodilator medications recently for "bronchitis", but still do not endorse an asthma diagnosis. This may cause us to underestimate the actual rates of asthma in those obese patients. Although those in the study who demonstrated exercise induced bronchospasm were offered treatment for asthma, no follow up data was collected on the health and the success with weight loss among our study population. While it would be reasonable to assume that treatment of their asthma makes it easier to exercise, and therefore lose weight, no data are available currently to confirm this hypothesis. It is possible that exercise-induced asthma may have an exacerbating effect on the development of obesity; these children may have learned at an early age that they do not enjoy physical activity, but not be certain why. This nearly 50 percent incidence of asthma in obese children confirms previous observations demonstrating a link between obesity and asthma, although the question whether the link is causal deserves further study.


(1.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Available on line at

(2.) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Information retrieved March, 2004 from

(3.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June, 2008.

(4.) Gold, D.R, Damokosh, A.I., Dockery, D.W., Berkey, C.S. Body Mass Index as a Predictor of Incident Asthma in a Prospective Cohort of Children. Pediatric Pulmonology 36:514-521, 2003.

(5.) Castro-Rodriguez, J.A., Holberg, C.J., Morgan, W.J., et al. Increased Incidence of Asthmalike Symptoms in Girls Who Become Overweight or Obese during the School Years. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 163:1344-1349, 2001.

(6.) Guerra, S, Wright, A.L., Morgan, W.J, et al. Persistence of Asthma Symptoms during Adolescence; Role of Obesity Age at the Onset of Puberty. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 170:78-85, 2004.

(7.) Stenius-Aarniala, B, Poussa, T, Kvarnstrom, J, et al. Immediate and long term effects of weight reduction in obese people with asthma: randomized controlled study. BMJ 320:827-832, 2000.

(8.) Jakala, K, Stenius-Aarniala, B, Sovijarvi, A. Effects of weight loss on peak flow variability, airways obstruction, and lung volumes in obese patients with asthma. Chest 118:1315-1321, 2000.

(9.) Polgar, G, Promadhat, V. Standard values. In: Pulmonary Function Testing in children: techniques and standards. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1971. p 87-212.

(10.) ATS/ACCP Statement on Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med. 167:211-277, 2003.

Robert A. Kaslovsky, MD

Pediatric Pulmonary Division Chief,

Baystate Children's Hospital,

Springfield, MA

Stephen B. Sondike, MD

Section Head, Adolescent Medicine,

WVU Physicians of Charleston and

Associate Professor of Pediatrics at

WVU Charleston Division

Stephanie Cummings, CMA
Table 1. All data subjects. Those with normal baseline spirometry
are grouped together at the bottom of the table.

     Age/ Gender   Height (cm)   Weight (Kg)    BMI    Initial FVC

1        8/M           133           56        31.65      2.01
2       14/M           181           113       34.5       3.23
3       11/M           143           71        34.7        2.7
4        7/M           131           38        22.14      2.09
5        9/M          151.5         87.2       38.0       3.41
6       12/M           154          78.7       33.0       2.85
7        9/F          130.8         70.4       31.2       2.74
8        9/F           147           75        34.7       2.85
9       13/F           171           138       47.18      4.38

10      12/F           147           75        34.7       2.49
11       8/M           138           59        31.0       2.23

12      16/F          162.5          162       61.3       2.46

13      12/F           148          78.5       35.8       2.86

14       8/F           125          46.0       29.4       1.59

15      15/F          150.4         99.0       39.7       3.69

16      13/M           170           118       40.8       4.30

17      11/F           169           141       49.4       3.93

18      11/F           155          68.8       28.6        3.2

19       9/M           169           141       49.4       3.95

20      13/F          171.2         151.7      51.8       5.54

                                  Bronchchodilator   Spirometry
     Age/ Gender   Initial FEV1   FVC      FEV1      improvement

1        8/M           1.47       2.37     2.06          40%
2       14/M           1.54       3.63     2.42          57%
3       11/M           2.13       2.75     2.06          -3%
4        7/M           0.92       2.09     1.13          11%
5        9/M           2.38       3.40     2.46          4%
6       12/M           2.21       3.6      3.02          37%
7        9/F           2.14       2.82     2.41          12%
8        9/F           2.47       2.97      2.4          -2%
9       13/F           3.71       4.29     3.93          6%

                                  Sent directly to
10      12/F           2.06        treadmill test        N/A
11       8/M           1.53       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
12      16/F           3.07       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
13      12/F           2.47       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
14       8/F           1.54       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
15      15/F           3.03       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
16      13/M           3.65       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
17      11/F           3.56       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
18      11/F           2.85       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
19       9/M           3.56       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]
20      13/F           4.13       [approximately         N/A
                                     equal to]

     Age/ Gender   Treadmill Test   Likely Asthma

1        8/M            N/A              Yes
2       14/M            N/A              Yes
3       11/M          Positive           Yes
4        7/M          Positive           Yes
5        9/M          Positive           Yes
6       12/M            N/A              Yes
7        9/F            N/A              Yes
8        9/F          Negative           No
9       13/F          Refused          Unknown

10      12/F          Positive           Yes
11       8/M          Positive           Yes

12      16/F          Negative           No

13      12/F          Negative           No

14       8/F          Negative           No

15      15/F          Negative           No

16      13/M          Negative           No

17      11/F          Negative           No

18      11/F          Negative           No

19       9/M          Negative           No

20      13/F          Negative           No
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Title Annotation:Scientific Article
Author:Kaslovsky, Robert A.; Sondike, Stephen B.; Cummings, Stephanie
Publication:West Virginia Medical Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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