My asthma diagnosis at 40 was life-changing – in a good way

Health | 3/30/2020
My asthma diagnosis at 40 was life-changing – in a good way
After 12 years sitting at a desk and always feeling tired, just before turning 40 Tanja Heleä got up from her office chair and jumped into an exercise program of first gym, walking and cycling, and then running. Then came the asthma attacks. Heleä was diagnosed with asthma, but it didn’t hold her back – two years later she ran her first full marathon.

“It was not long before my 40th birthday,” Tanja Heleä recalls, “that I suggested to my husband that we start training for a half marathon. In disbelief, he said, ‘you don’t even own a pair of running shoes!’”

At 46, Heleä has now run three full marathons and is heading off to Chicago this year with her husband in tow to run another one. Disappointingly, she had to pull out of her first-ever marathon attempt in Turku, Finland, because of an asthma attack 28 kilometres into the run. She attributes the attack to the hot dry weather conditions that day. “Dry heat or dry cold are my main asthma triggers,” Heleä laments.

New career path in trail running

Looking back, while some argue that if Heleä hadn’t launched into such vigorous exercise, she might have held off the onset of asthma, Heleä’s response is that becoming a runner has been life-changing and despite the asthma, she feels much better and much happier than ever now that she’s on this side of 40.

After the asthma diagnosis, instead of giving up, Heleä just upped the ante. She started studying personal training and eventually quit her job to work as a full-time trainer. She now has a range of clients, some who are a bit older and some who even have asthma themselves. “While they might have once felt a bit of an imposter syndrome,” Heleä explains, “because I don’t let my age or my asthma stop me from working out, they feel reassured.”

Watch Tanja's interview

Inhaler in her pocket

In her twenties, Heleä developed a pollen allergy which began to flare up every spring, but with regular allergy medication, she was able to keep it in check. Around the same time, she also began to develop occasional breathing trouble. “I started finding myself struggling for breath when I was laughing too hard with my friends,” she recalls, “which was kind of a sad problem to have.” This may have been a precursor to asthma, but at the time Heleä didn’t understand what it was.

 Now in addition to her pollen medication, Heleä takes a daily preventive asthma medication, morning and night, and never runs anywhere without her rescue inhaler stuck handily in the pocket of her training wear. If she starts to get breathless, she has learnt to pull up and take the rescue medication. “After that, I usually wait or walk a little until my breath normalises and most times, I can just pick up where I left off and keep on running,” she says.

Some of Heleä’s clients have other allergic asthma triggers like dust or pollution. But Heleä definitely knows the drill if things get difficult, and her clients know they’re in good and experienced hands out on the trail with her. 

In sickness and in health

Heleä is now running about four to five times a week, around 45 km. Trail runs for Heleä can be as long as ten hours. She runs with her clients and with her husband. She even runs with her dog. Heleä, who loves her Cairn Terrier, Pontus, feels lucky never to have developed any allergies to pet dander. “My dog is always happy to join a trail run – but only the shorter ones.”

If you ask Heleä, a mother of three, how asthma has affected her family life, she is nothing but positive. Before her diagnosis, the family had already weathered one health scare when her husband was 31 and was unexpectedly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

“We have ‘in sickness and in health’ in our wedding vows,” Heleä jokes, “but thanks to our running, we’re both healthier than we’ve ever been.”

Heleä believes in exercise for strengthening her lung capacity. Also, her three children, now in their 20s, have encouraged her new lifestyle. 

“Of course, my kids do think I’m a little crazy, but like the asthma they don’t hold me back.”


By Laurel Colless

Photo and video by Pasi Leino



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Orion Corporation is a globally operating Finnish pharmaceutical company. We develop, manufacture and market human and veterinary pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients. The dry powder inhaler developed at Orion is in the core of our respiratory therapy area.