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Asthma: A debilitating disease or something that can be overcome?

To explore the impact of asthma and how we can overcome it, using the model of successful sportspeople.

by Jude Scrutton

Suitable for Key Stage 3


To explore the impact of asthma and how we can overcome it, using the model of successful sportspeople.

Preparation and materials

  • Flip chart.
  • Pictures of athletes who have excelled in sport despite having asthma. This assembly will focus on Paula Radcliffe.
  • Optional: for step 3, show one of the many videos on causes of asthma – just search using a good search engine,
  • Asthma statistics on a PowerPoint for step 3:
    – Over 5 million people in the UK have asthma; 1.4 million of them are children aged under 16 years.
    – 2.6 million people (2.1 million adults and 500,000 children) in the UK have severe asthma symptoms including debilitating breathlessness, attacks so bad they cannot speak, fear that they may die and emergency hospital admissions.
    – 8 million people in the UK have been diagnosed as having asthma at some point in their lives.
    – In 2001, 55 in every 1,000 men and 45 in every 1,000 women had asthma in the UK.
    – There are almost 4 million consultations and 74,000 hospital admissions for asthma each year in the UK.
    – There were 1,381 deaths from asthma in the UK in 2004 (40 were children aged 14 years or under). On average, 4 people per day or 1 person every 6 hours dies from asthma. However the amount of deaths due to asthma has fallen from more than 2,000 in the 1980s and it is estimated that approximately 90 per cent of asthma deaths could have been prevented if the patient, carer or health care professional had acted differently.
    – An estimated 492 cases of occupational asthma were seen for the first time by occupational and chest physicians who reported to the THOR (SWORD/OPRA) surveillance schemes in 2005, bringing the average annual incidence over the three years 2003–05 to 571, or around 2 cases per 100,000 workers per year.
  • List of athletes on PowerPoint (see step 3)


  1. On the flip chart, write a list of sports the students enjoy and would like to compete in if they were good enough, i.e. football – FA cup; cricket – the Ashes etc. . . .
  2. Hold up an inhaler. Ask the students what it is.

    Ask the students who has to use one of these sometimes, on a weekly basis, on a daily basis, or on a regular basis.
  3. Show the statistics PowerPoint. (You may also like to show a video on causes of asthma.)

    Look back at the list and ask students to cross out the sports and pastimes they would not be able to participate in to a high level because of asthma. (Students will probably cross out the high-octane sports such as marathon running, football etc.

    Then put the following list (and pictures you've found) of athletes up:

    Jerome Bettis – professional football player
    Bruce Davidson – Olympic equestrian
    Tom Dolan – Olympic medallist, swimming
    Kurt Grote – Olympic medallist, swimming
    Nancy Hogshead – Olympic medallist, swimming
    Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter – professional baseball player
    Miguel Indurain – Tour de France winner (five times) and Olympic champion
    Jackie Joyner-Kersee – Olympic medallist, track
    Bill Koch – Olympic medallist, cross-country skiing
    Greg Louganis – Olympic medallist, diving
    Tom Malchow – Olympic medallist, swimming
    Debbie Meyer – Olympic medallist, swimming
    Art Monk – professional football player
    George Murray – wheelchair athlete & Boston Marathon winner
    Robert Muzzio – decathlete
    Paula Radcliffe – world record holder marathon
    Dennis Rodman – professional basketball player
    Jim Ryun – Olympic medallist, track
    Alberto Salazar – marathon runner
    Mark Spitz – Olympics medallist, swimming
    Alison Streeter – crossed the English channel a record 43 times
    Isaiah Thomas – professional basketball player
    Jan Ullrich – Tour de France winner
    Amy van Dyken – Olympic medallist, swimming
    Dominique Wilkins – professional basketball player
    Kristi Yamaguchi – Olympic medallist, figure skating
  4. Tell students that you are going to focus more directly on Paula Radcliffe. Display a picture of her, if you have one.

    During Paula’s preparation for the Olympic Games in Beijing she talked about how her asthma might affect her. There were two reasons why it might. One was that there’s a lot of air pollution in the Beijing area. Some of the other athletes said they were also worried about that, and last year some scientists measured pollution in Beijing during August, which is when the Games are held, and found that it was quite serious. A few athletes even said that they might not run in the long-distance events because of it. They were concerned that pollution would damage their lungs.

    The other worry was that at that time of the year it is very hot and humid in Beijing, and hot, humid weather isn’t at all good for marathon runners; they like it cool, crisp and clear. If it’s hot and humid, they sweat a lot and lose a lot of water from their bodies, which is difficult to make up. That can cause their body temperature to go right up and cause heat exhaustion.

    Paula said she wasn’t going to worry about the pollution. She said, ‘I need the right dosages of my medication, but after that I don’t think the pollution is something I can worry about too much.’

    What she meant, really, was that it wasn't something she could do anything about, so why worry about it?

    What she did worry about, though, was the heat and humidity. That’s because she could prepare for that. For example, she made sure she took on enough water and other energy drinks both before the race and during it. She’s very experienced at that and knows how to do the right thing.

    Paula developed asthma when she was 14, when she started to train seriously for running. She found that she would get tightness in the chest, be short of breath and sometimes get dizzy. But now she is a world-class runner. She manages her condition by being completely disciplined about the way she takes her medication. She takes it at the right time, in the right doses. She also knows how to measure her lung capacity so she knows how she’s getting on.

    Paula says, ‘I don’t really think asthma has affected my career – if anything, it’s made me more determined to be successful and reach my maximum potential.’

Time for reflection

There are some good lessons to be learned from Paula. One is that if you have a health problem, then there are two things you can do. One is to be very careful and disciplined about doing what the doctors and the health experts say. It’s so easy to cut corners and forget things or not bother. But Paula learned early on that if she was casual with her medication, then she paid the price in her athletic performance.

The other thing you can do is learn from Paula’s determination. It would have been easy for her to use her asthma as an excuse for not doing things, but she did the opposite and used her asthma as something to spur her on. Other athletes and sports people have done the same – the cricketer Ian Botham and the England football player Paul Scholes both have asthma, but have still become top-class sports performers.

Think about people that you know who have what could be a debilitating disease or condition. Be thankful for how they work to overcome that potential weakness, and think about how you can support them if they get down or are finding life tough.


‘I believe’ by R. Kelly, widely available to download.

Publication date: May 2011   (Vol.13 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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