Exercise and Immunity

by Patti Finke M.S.


It's that time of year again. No, not the holiday season, the cold, flu, runny nose and sore throat season. While there are no cures for the common cold and flu; there are a lot of over the counter remedies that may make you feel better. However, the best strategy for the season is prevention, mainly non exposure to the viruses. Since we cannot hibernate or move to noninhabited islands , the next best strategy is to have a strong immune system. Keeping the immune system at its best is something you can work on through lifestyle habits. The information in this note comes from an article by David C. Nieman in the Lifestyle Medicine Institute "Lifeline" Health Letter.

While getting a flu shot does not guarantee you won't get the flu, it may lessen the symptoms. The shot is important if you are in a group with significant risk for complications from the flu which includes those over 65 or who have health problems especially lung related.

There are lifestyle factors which can influence, (strengthen and weaken), the immune system. These factors include diet, stress and physical activity. Lack of proper food or inadequate nutrition can impair the immune system. If you are a senior living and eating alone, make certain to get a well balanced diet including adequate fruits and vegetables. There is no convincing evidence that excessive intakes of certain vitamins or certain minerals prevents flus or colds. There is some evidence that vitamin C intake during a cold may lessen the severity and/or shorten the course.

Mental stress can weaken the immune system. Events such as moving, marital discord, family problems and undue anxiety have been shown to have a weakening effect on the immune system. Moderating the pace of life, getting adequate rest and taking care of your self are all good weapons to shore up the immune system.

One of the hottest topics in exercise physiology is exercise and the immune system. Of course, the topic is littered with controversy. Many exercisers have long felt that exercise increased their resistance to colds and flu. The controversies center around how much will help and how much exercise is too much. I'm going to focus on what will help since very few of you are highly competitive athletes who overdo. A study was done with 50 women divided into exercise and non exercise groups. The exercise group walked briskly 45 minutes for five days per week. The women who walked experienced half as many colds as the nonexercise groups. Walkers had an increase in natural killer cells from the beginning. Natural killer cells are part of the body's first line defense against germs and viruses. The study suggests that moderate exercise is beneficial to strengthen the immune system.

Other studies from around the world have suggested that moderate exercise appears to be protective and enhances immune function. Most studies did find that moderation and not overdoing is important. Enjoy your exercise, but don't overdo!


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