As the mercury plummets and the days get shorter, many of us are trying to fight off getting sick. We spend more time indoors, our environment becomes more germ infested and many of us will succumb to the dreaded winter cold or flu. It may manifest in a variety of ways- sore throats, sinus problems, congestion in our chests and noses, sneezing and feeling rundown. Many of us have found our own ways to deal with this including taking Emergen-C or extra vitamin C in other forms, using a neti pot, taking zicam or another type of zinc at the first sign of a cold in order to fend off a full blown illness. We may also double down on getting enough sleep, making sure we stay warm with scarves, hats and warm coats and boots in the frigid weather, and staying well hydrated. Still others will depend on essential oils, aromatherapy or other naturopathic ways to stay well. These are all good strategies, but what role may exercise play in the armamentarium of staying healthy?
We know by now that exercise keeps us healthy in many ways including increasing oxygenation through improved circulation, lubricating joints to keep them flexible, providing resistance to muscles to make them stronger, as well as regenerating new brain cells. Exercise also generally reduces the amount of fat in the body which has been linked to higher levels of inflammation. This study gives clues as to how exercise positively impacts the immune system.
Twenty-eight healthy male mice were divided into two groups. One group was given a regimen of swimming 5 times a week, for 10 minutes at a time. This was equivalent to about half an hour of jogging for humans, since mice are not natural swimmers. The other group of mice remained sedentary. Each group was infected with the staphylcoccus virus, and although both groups got sick, the sedentary group experienced longer lasting , more serious symptoms that resembled pneumonia, since the invading microbes settled in their lungs. Although the exercising group also got sick, they experienced less severe and shorter illnesses.
Two mechanisms were found to be at play during this study. Exercise helped shrink fat cells, which produced more inflammation. Interestingly, the “workouts caused small amounts of continuous tissue damage and inflammation. This process, the researchers said, seems to have familiarized the animals’ bodies with trauma and how best to initiate healing.” One explanation is that exercise circulated white blood cells more rapidly, helping detect bacteria sooner, activating the immune response. However, when exercise is overdone without sufficient recovery, inflammation can get out of control, and cause the immune system to be compromised. Moderate to vigorous exercise, along with the proper amount of rest and recovery increased the amount of anti-microbial immune cells, speeding up the healing process.
The researchers concluded that moderate to vigorous exercise has a beneficial effect on our immune systems, as measured by an increase in the infection fighting cells, and illnesses that were less severe and of shorter duration. Of course, more research is needed to measure how this translates to our own immune system, but early results point to similar effects for humans.
If you want to stay healthy as we head toward the winter, dive in and engage your cardio and musculoskeletal system by working out – you may well avoid the flu and colds typical of this season!
Next week, we’ll take a look at how carb consumption during workouts may fend off colds. Stay tuned!