What we can do is look after ourselves (and loved ones) and most of all look after our bodies.
Before we start delving into what the science says about exercise and the immunity, I feel it’s important to mention that the clue is very much in the title…….immune SYSTEM.
This system does not work alone and therefore we must take into consideration what is already going on in the body. For example nutrition, daily habits, the gut brain axis, stress and psychological well being all play an important role in building a resilient immune system. There are still many fascinating studies ongoing that explore the role immunity plays within the body. The message, common within the conclusions of most research, is that a balance of all the system within the body needs to be considered.
For example a poor diet, cannot be made up for by a multi vitamin supplement!
What we know for sure!
The benefits of exercise on heart health and maintaining optimum bone strength are all well documented and supported but what about training in such uncertain times. Can staying fit, keep us healthy? And if so what does the ideal fitness regime or workout look like?
Moderate intensity exercise over a long period has been shown to contribute to good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently. Macrophages, the cells which attack bacteria, see a temporary boost in production and continue to flow through the body at an increased rate for a few hours, following moderate intensity exercise. The more seasoned an exerciser, the greater this benefit is thought to be. The rhythmic action of most moderate intensity exercise methods such as brisk walking, swimming, Pilates and gymnastics, moves the joints, ensuring the lymphatic system pumps fluid around the body to remove debris effectively.
Dr. David Nieman found that 40 minutes of moderate exercise on most days was most beneficial and decreased the number of sick days due to cold and flu symptoms by half.
In fact patients with mild cold symptoms and no fever, partaking in light or moderate exercise may feel better and actually boost their immune system.
So why not try a brisk walk in the park or a Pilates class? Neither of these need to last more than an hour and science aside, I for one have never felt worse for going for a walk or taking a Pilates class!
So what about high intensity exercise? The kind of exercise that takes 100%of our effort and energy and at times can leave us feeling drained.Although there is a time and a place for this kind of exercise, does it play a role in our immunity?
The risk of illness was actually found to be increased as the intensity of training increased in a study conducted by Nieman and Wentz
This was generally supported in the research papers I went on to look at. Heavy/endurance style training, (longer than 90 minutes) was seen to have a negative impact on the immune system. This was due to a surge in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which remained elevated in subjects for up to 72 hours post workout. These stress hormones suppress the immune system, leaving exercisers more susceptible to illness.
So we can see that too much of a good thing is not great for the immune system and that we need to be aiming for 40 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, on most days. For women especially weight bearing exercise or resistance training is a hot topic right now for the prevention of osteoporosis and osteopenia.
One area that is being looked at in particular is the reduction of bone marrow and therefore stem cells as we age. The stem cells are responsible for fighting off infection and are produced by bone marrow. Therefore if we can find out workout of moderate intensity that includes resistance training we could be on to a real winner in terms of immunity and long term health.
Reformer Pilates anyone?
Those of you that have ever taken part in Pilates will know that it is very hard to think about anything else. There is a strong mind muscle connection during the session, that, in a nut shell teaches us how to use the right muscle, at the right time and for the right purpose. The breathing pattern promoted in Pilates helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and relax our body. Via the release of hormones this can have a calming effect on the mind and body. Psychological stress, when too high has been shown to impair immunity and lead to an increase in cold and flu infections. Therefore by calming both the mind and body and linking the two together through mindful movement, we can can have a strong and positive outcome in the control of our stress hormones.
So I hope this round up helps you to choose your exercise wisely in the coming months. There is clearly no need to stop doing anything, but we also don’t want to be working out so intensely that we put ourselves on the back foot in terms of staying healthy.