Battling another cough or cold? Feeling tired all the time? You may feel better if you take a daily walk or follow a simple exercise routine a few times a week. When it comes to reducing your risk of getting sick, you can’t beat washing your hands and not touching your face. But something you already do is also helping to keep your immune system in top condition so it can better fight off all viruses: working out.
Exercise helps boost defense against viruses and bacteria
At a basic level, the immune system has three main functions of defense. Exercise helps maintain the normal function of each of these.
1. Physical barriers, like the skin, which stops pathogens like viruses from entering the body. Research has shown that skin wound healing is faster in people who exercise regularly compared to sedentary people. Faster wound healing reduces the risk of bacteria and virus entry in people who are active.
2. Innate (or natural) immunity, which is mainly made up of cells like neutrophils and natural killer cells which are the first immune cells to respond to infections. Exercise has a profound effect on these cells. For example, during a bout of exercise, natural killer cells move into the bloodstream in vast numbers. Following exercise, these cells migrate to sites of inflammation to seek out pathogens, and damaged cells. This process might even help our immune system detect cancerous cells.
3. Adaptive (or memory) immunity, which is mainly comprised of cells called T and B lymphocytes. Exercise also has a profound impact on these cells. It has been shown that lifelong regular exercise may help maintain healthy numbers of young T lymphocytes as we age, which may help the immune system to better identify pathogens and cancer as we reach older age.
Exercise helps reduce stress
Physical activity can help lower your overall stress levels and improve your quality of life, both mentally and physically. Exercising regularly can have a positive effect on your mood by relieving the tension, anxiety, anger, and mild depression that often go hand-in-hand with stress. Exercise improves your body’s ability to use oxygen and also improves blood flow. Both of these changes have a direct effect on your brain. Exercise also increases your brain’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that are responsible for the coveted “runner’s high.” This is the sense of well-being and euphoria that many people experience after exercise.
The main types of immune cells are white blood cells. There are two types of white blood cells – lymphocytes and phagocytes. When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced. That is why we are more susceptible to infections. The stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system (lowers the number of lymphocytes).
Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as a person may use unhealthy behavioral coping strategies to reduce their stress, such as drinking and smoking. At this time, convenient and comfort foods are usually the order of the day; but, unfortunately, these are unlikely to contain the nutrients our body needs to calm our stress response. Stress is linked to: headaches; infectious illness (flu); cardiovascular disease; diabetes, asthma and gastric ulcers.
Here are some exercise tips to stay safe and injury-free:
1. Be aware of your body. Think about how the particular exercise is making you feel. If something doesn’t feel right, stop immediately and seek medical advice.
2. Warm up and cool down.Try slow stretches and go through the motions of your sport or activity before starting. Cool down with slow stretching.
3. Pace yourself.Have at least one recovery day each week to rest. If you are experiencing pain, rest until the pain has gone.
4. Mix it up.Try other sports and exercises to reduce the risk of overtraining.
5. Strap or tape.If a joint is prone to injury, consider strapping or taping it before exercising. Even better, see an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist to obtain a program to strengthen the injured area and get advice on proper taping techniques.
6. Stay hydrated. You can lose around one and a half liter of fluid for every hour of exercise; so drink water before, during and after a session.
7. Be weather aware. Take it easier in hot weather and wear clothing and sunscreen to protect yourself from the elements.
8. Do it right. Try to get the technique right from the beginning, to ensure you are using your muscles correctly.
9. Check your gear. Make sure your shoes and equipment fit properly and is right for the activity. Look after your equipment and check it regularly for safety
10. Be sensible, especially at night or in secluded areas.Take a friend or your dog, stick to well-lit areas and wear bright or light-reflective clothing so drivers can see you.