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Exercise can boost the immune system

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

We are in the midst of cold and flu season. Although there is evidence that shows regular exercise benefits the immune system, even dedicated fitness enthusiasts might eventually come down with something. But if you are not a dedicated fitness enthusiast, boosting your immune system provides more incentive to start and stick with an exercise program.

If you do happen to catch a bug, how do you decide whether it’s best to get some activity or get some rest? I usually determine this based on my symptoms. If it’s a common cold with symptoms like runny nose, sore throat and minor aches and pains with no fever, it is probably safe to engage in some moderate exercise and it may even make you feel better. If you have a fever, aches and pains, swollen lymph nodes, chest congestion, and stomach or intestinal issues, it’s probably best to get some bed rest and gradually ease back into your normal workout routine. 

Does exercise really boost the immune system? To test this scientifically, the American College of Sports Medicine conducted two studies with young and elderly women to determine whether those who exercise get fewer colds than those who don't. In both studies, women in the exercise groups walked briskly 35 to 45 minutes, 5 days a week, for 12 to 15 weeks, while the control groups remained physically inactive. The walkers experienced about half the days with cold symptoms as the sedentary group.

Other research has shown that during moderate exercise, several positive changes occur in the immune system. Although the immune system returns to pre-exercise levels very quickly after the exercise session, each session represents a boost that appears to reduce the risk of infection over the long term.

Although some cold and flu germs can live on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours, the most common way they are transferred is through contact with an infected person. The best way to avoid becoming infected is to frequently wash your hands with soap and water or with an alcohol-based sanitizer. Avoid rubbing your eyes and nose or biting your nails. The most important preventive measure is to get a flu vaccine every year. 

To ward off illness, you should also make sure to eat a well-balanced diet, avoid rapid weight loss, and get enough sleep. You should also avoid overdoing it. Too much exercise and chronic fatigue can make you more susceptible to illness.   

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