Skip to content
View commentaries on this research

This is a plain English summary of an original research article

Breathing exercises taught by a physiotherapist in person or on DVD both improved the quality of life of adults with poorly controlled asthma to a small but similar extent. The DVD was the cheapest option, and it could lead to inexpensive internet delivery in the future.

This NIHR-funded trial recruited 655 UK adults with poorly controlled asthma. It showed about 63% of those receiving the breathing exercises had clinically important improvements in their asthma-related quality of life over a year, compared to 56% who improved receiving usual care.

Exercises did not improve formally measured lung function, suggesting the underlying biology of the asthma was unchanged.

The findings imply that breathing exercise programmes – currently recommended in the 2016 British guideline on the management of asthma when delivered by a physiotherapist – may be equally effective, and cheaper when delivered via DVD (or another video).

Why was this study needed?

Asthma affects more than five million people in the UK and costs the NHS and social care (including disability payments) more than £1 billion each year. It led to at least 6.3 million primary care consultations, and 1160 asthma deaths in 2012.

While asthma medications can provide full symptom control for some, a recent European survey suggests this isn’t the case for most. Poorly controlled asthma can reduce a person’s quality of life and result in higher use of health services or time off work.

Many patients have concerns about taking medicines long-term, so non-drug approaches to control asthma, like practising breathing exercises at home, are of particular interest.

This trial aimed to provide new evidence on whether breathing exercises delivered by DVD or face-to-face by a physiotherapist were able to improve the lung function, number of attacks or the quality of life of adults with poorly controlled asthma.

What did this study do?

This randomised control trial recruited 655 UK adults with poorly controlled asthma who reported impaired asthma-related quality of life.

Participants were randomised to receive a breathing exercise intervention based on the Papworth method delivered via DVD (261 people) or face-to-face with a physiotherapist (132 people), or usual care (262 people).

The physiotherapy intervention involved three face-to-face respiratory physiotherapist sessions. The DVD intervention showed detailed explanations and illustrations of how to carry out the exercises, including a physiotherapist teaching the exercises to patients. Segments explaining the rationale for the exercises and addressing common doubts and concerns were also included. Usual care involved continuing to take normal asthma medications without further intervention.

Almost 95% of participants attended at least one of the three scheduled sessions with 93% attending all three. Similarly, engagement was good in the DVD arm.

What did it find?

  • Both the DVD and face-to-face physiotherapy sessions improved patient’s asthma-related quality of life scores over 12 months compared with usual care, though the difference was small. The proportion of patients showing a clinically important improvement in asthma-related quality of life score over one year (defined as a change in score of 0.5) was 62% in the DVD group and 64% in the physiotherapy group; both significantly higher than 56% for those receiving usual care.
  • The DVD was shown to be equally effective (non-inferior) as the physiotherapy sessions.
  • Costs for the physiotherapy face to face intervention was £83.45 per patient compared with £2.85 for the DVD (printing the discs and documentation).
  • Neither the DVD nor face-to-face physiotherapy sessions significantly improved lung function, airway inflammation or number of asthma attacks over the year. This suggests the interventions were improving patient-reported asthma symptoms without improving the underlying biology of the disease.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

The 2016 British guideline on the management of asthma states that breathing exercise programmes (including physiotherapist-taught methods) can be offered to people with asthma as an adjuvant to pharmacological treatment to improve quality of life and reduce symptoms.

What are the implications?

These simple exercises, which can be done at home, appear to be of modest benefit for adults who have poorly controlled asthma. The DVD option is appealing as it is cheap and just as effective as face-to-face training.

Technology is rapidly evolving so new internet delivery methods may now be available such as videos on websites, tablets and mobile apps, the researchers say they are investigating these.

Citation and Funding

Thomas M, Bruton A, Little P, et al. A randomised controlled study of the effectiveness of breathing retraining exercises taught by a physiotherapist either by instructional DVD or in face-to-face sessions in the management of asthma in adults. Health Technol Assess. 2017;21(53):1-162.

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment (project number 09/104/19).



NICE. Guidelines on asthma management. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2017.

SIGN British guideline on the management of asthma. 153. Edinburgh: Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network; 2016.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre


  • Share via:
  • Print article


The Papworth breathing technique is used by respiratory physiotherapists to control and correct breathing. The Papworth technique encourages gentler, more relaxed breathing using the abdomen rather than the chest. Read more about the Papworth breathing technique.  
Back to top