Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Among other benefits, regular physical activity can have a positive effect on your immune system. Research shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells, making the immune system response to viruses more robust.
This is particularly relevant now that we are experiencing an outbreak of a novel coronavirus. This virus can lead to a disease called COVID-19 which causes respiratory symptoms similar to the seasonal flu, but can progress to more serious conditions like pneumonia.
As the virus spreads, more and more infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are counted each day in the United States and around the world. At this point, it is reasonable to expect that COVID-19 is spreading in our community.
This means that we should all take steps to protect ourself from infection and do what we can to reduce the risk of serious illness. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Smart advice from the CDC includes avoiding close contact with people who are sick since COVID-19 can be spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The CDC also advises avoiding larger crowds where the virus may spread more easily. In fact, many events and gatherings including concerts, sports, meetings, and church services have been cancelled and some schools are closed.
When you are out in public, try to keep a three to six foot distance between yourself and others and replace handshakes and hugs with a friendly elbow bump.
The virus can also spread through surfaces, so you can also protect yourself by by washing your hands frequently with soap and water and not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. If soap and water is not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative. The CDC does not recommend wearing a mask or gloves to protect yourself unless you are sick or are caring for someone who is sick.
Good nutrition is important for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. In fact, the majority of nutritional supplements have not undergone appropriate testing and for those supplements that have been tested, the results are not consistent with the claims.
It especially important to note that there are no foods, nutrients, or supplements that are effective against specific viruses, including the COVID-19 virus. Any claims that a certain supplement can prevent COVID-19 are false!
Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. High levels of stress can also increase susceptibility to viruses. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system. Getting enough sleep should always be a priority, especially now.
A couple of final notes about exercise and the immune system. While moderate exercise can boost the immune system, very vigorous and prolonged exercise can have the opposite effect. You may wondering if it is safe to go to the gym to work out. COVID-19 isn’t spread through sweat, but, like any virus, is can be spread through the air and surfaces by infected people, especially in a crowded gym or exercise class.
Washing your hands, not touching your face, and making sure to wipe down equipment, including weights, is important.
That said, this would be a good time to exercise outdoors where the risk of viral spread is lower and you can get the benefits of exercising in the fresh air and sunshine!