Immunity. We usually remember it when the cold season is approaching or in the case of an alarming spread of a disease, such as COVID-19. It is only then that we begin to wonder if we have done everything in our power to take care of such valuable health. Sport and immunity are very close related and there’s been a lot of debate between scientists whether physical activity could strengthen the immune system or on the contrary, weakens it.
The immune system consists of a vast number of cells, tissues, and messengers—for example, cytokines—that play a key role in the protection of the body against infection and in healing after injury. It is becoming increasingly evident that it is highly integrated with our neurological and endocrine systems, and research now seeks to understand and exploit these interactions. The need for an active immune system is self evident if an athlete is to continuously produce peak performances, but often intense exertion and treatment for inflammation lead to partially reduced immune capacity and consequently potential infection or disease. To circumvent such problems, it is of major importance to understand how to achieve the optimum balance of the immune system.
There is no miraculous treatment that will strengthen the immune system in an instant, and all we can do at this time is to prevent the disease through increased hygiene measures and responsible behavior towards ourselves and others.
One of the ways to help our immune system and strengthen our body is to constantly move.
The cancellation or postponement of the running competitions in the following months because of COVID-19, has overturned the plans of many runners. Running races keep us motivated and cause us to train passionately, but we must not lose sight of one thing: there is a level from which the sport turns from ally to enemy of immunity.
In general, the literature suggests that acute exercise—for example, marathon and ultra marathon running—results in an associated reduction in aspects of immune competence so that such athletes may be at increased risk of illness and need to pay particular attention to their nutritional state, hygiene, and exposure to infections. It has been suggested that exercise induced reductions in particular lymphocyte subsets in runners is more dependent on training intensity than volume and is transient.
Intense workouts, which require high effort over a long period of time, decrease the body’s resistance for 24 to 72 hours, increasing the risk of colds and respiratory diseases for 1-2 weeks.
It seems that too much exercise at high intensity has an opposite effect to the benefits of moderate physical activity and increases the risk of infections. Therefore, the chances of contracting a virus, including coronavirus, increase substantially after a marathon, when the immune system is not in the best shape. There are also studies that consider that intense physical activity does not present risks to the immune system and does not influence the incidence of infections, but we think it is good to be cautious, especially during this period. So, getting the right balance between intense workouts and low intensity ones could be a good relationship between sport and immunity.
A large study showed that mild to moderate exercise – performed about three times a week – reduced the risk of dying during the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1998.
The Hong Kong study was performed on 24,656 Chinese adults who died during this outbreak. This study showed that people who did no exercise at all or too much exercise – over five days of exercise per week – were at greatest risk of dying compared with people who exercised moderately.
However, we still want to enjoy movement, endorphins, even during the pandemic. What should we do? How to reconcile immunity and running, sport in general?
In order for the immune system to benefit from running, some specialists suggest the following formula: run less than 96 km per week, mostly at low intensity (60% of VO2 max, corresponding to 75% of max heart rate), especially in workouts that do not exceed 60 minutes each. The researchers concluded that while long, intense runs lower immunity, not the same can be said about long, but intermittent running, with pauses, which would reduce the threat to the immune system.
When running, carbohydrates are important not only for energy, but also for immunity. A 3-hour run without adequate carbohydrate intake affects not only the muscles of the legs, but also the cells of the immune system, which become visibly dysfunctional. After running, consuming berries, especially blueberries, helps the immune system through its high content of polyphenols and flavonoids.
- After effort recovery and sleep support the body to get back in shape more easily, so include them in the workout schedule.
- Do not over train and do no more difficult exercises than you used to do before.
- If you do not go to the gym to avoid crowding, you can keep fit by doing physical exercises at home, and for this you do not need to have a fitness room. Choose workouts with body weight or simple accessories, such as dumbbells, elastic, medical balls etc. There are numerous online training programs you can follow, some of which are free. A personal trainer can guide you even remotely with exercise recommendations for your fitness.
- If you are one of the lucky ones that have a treadmill at home, then your training program may not be affected so much, but please do have mercy when posting your sessions on social media, as there are many others who might envy you 🙂
- Cycling indoors may be also a suitable option, either you have a stationary bike or use a turbo-trainer or roller with your outdoor bike.
We often seek complicated remedies, but this time the best prevention is really simple gestures: washing hands, disinfecting objects and work surfaces, avoiding crowds and especially people with signs of illness.
We may live complicated times now, but we all get through this eventually with the right mindset. And especially in these difficult times we need to get the right dose of motivation to keep on going. Jacqui Bell, Derek Stewart, Huw Williams, Menna Evans, Edward Chapman are one of the most amazing people we crossed paths with and reading their stories will definitely put as back on track.
We may seem to stop right now. But we stop, so that we continue later, stronger. Be safe, stay motivated and keep on moving, friends!
And last but not least, be positive and keep the smile on your faces!