We all know that physical activity is one of the best ways to optimize your health, but can exercising during the COVID-19 pandemic put you at a higher risk of infection? And if you are infected, can it prolong infection and put you at a greater risk for experiencing complications?
Without a doubt, exercise is one of the best things you can do for your immunity. Studies show that exercise boosts the immune system in all sorts of ways: it increases the number of T-cells (or infection fighting cells), insulin sensitivity, and the body’s ability to use oxygen, while lowering blood sugar and stress hormones. It also beneficially alters the gut microbiome, where the majority of your immune cells are located. Recent studies support these findings. A New York Times article published this week, highlights some important findings that support just how protective exercise is against infection and what a big role it plays in boosting immunity:
- Endurance athletes (those who run marathons and other endurance sports) report fewer annual sick days
- Experiments in mice showed that those who regularly exercised 30 minutes daily were much less likely to get a rodent form of influenza
- Rodent studies also showed that, counter to previous hypotheses, there is not a window of low immunity following strenuous exercise. Instead, the drop in immune cells in the blood stream are due to the cells travelling to the gut and other parts of the body that are more susceptible to infection during exercise. They then return to the bloodstream at normal their previous levels.
- A second study also showed that directly following a strenuous exercise bout, fit mice were able to fight off infection better than sedentary mice.
Based on these studies and others, we now know that exercise boosts immunity in a very big way. It is however important to know that for those who have not been working out, now is not the time to start a strenuous exercise program. There is evidence, although limited, that doing so in unconditioned individuals can lower immunity. If this is you, focus on short, low endurance activities (like walking), beginning at a level that feels right for you.
No matter who you are, during the COVID-19 pandemic we recommend exercising – and sweating – daily. And the more you can get outside, the better. As you’re exercising, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Conduct exercise away from others, keeping a distance of at least 6 to 10 feet apart.
- Avoid crowded areas and do not exercise in groups. Exercising in your front or back yard or on your balcony or front porch are the safest places, assuming they are more secluded. If you live in a suburban area, explore your neighborhood streets and green open spaces that are minimally populated. If you see other people out and about, be sure to allow for a safe distance between individuals and consider crossing the street so as not to break the recommended 6 to 10-foot distance. If you live in an urban area, and it’s challenging to get outside, open the windows in your home and exercise inside.
- If you have symptoms “above the neck” such as a runny nose, headache, sore throat, and other common cold symptoms, we recommend continuing to exercise. While you may want to dial down your intensity and duration, exercising can help clear out your head cold and boost your immune response.
- If you have symptoms “below the neck” such as fever, body aches, fatigue, GI symptoms, or a deep chest cough, we recommend foregoing exercise, and choosing lots of rest and hydration instead. It’s also good to wait a couple of days after your symptoms subside to rest your body and fully recover.
- Clean your equipment thoroughly. During this time, we recommend wiping down all the equipment you use, even if your workouts are at home.
For many of us, our workout routines have been completely upended – gyms, fitness studios, and outdoor parks are closed, and with the social distancing guidelines, it can be difficult finding an uncrowded outdoor area for runs, walks, and open-air workouts. Longer workouts may not be possible. The recommended weekly exercise guidelines are 150 minutes – shoot for just 30 minutes 5 days per week to make the most of the immune-boosting benefits of exercise. Also know that your workouts don’t have to involve complicated exercises. Going for a 30-minute brisk walk is more than enough to benefit.
If you’re wanting to get creative with your workouts and gain some variety, check out these exercise apps that were featured in Forbes’ Tracker: Free At-Home Services Available to Consumers During The Covid-19 Pandemic: