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25 March 2020

Training and Immunity – How to approach exercise during COVID-19

by Martin Refalo 0

Disclaimer: This article, written by the team at JPS Health & Fitness, is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to highlight some of the key benefits offered by physical activity and exercise on immune health. Whilst we operate in the health and fitness industry; however, our expertise does not extend to immunology or…

Disclaimer: This article, written by the team at JPS Health & Fitness, is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to highlight some of the key benefits offered by physical activity and exercise on immune health.

Whilst we operate in the health and fitness industry; however, our expertise does not extend to immunology or that of medical professionals. During these times, we advise any person to seek out professional advice or medical attention if necessary. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down overnight. Empty supermarket aisles, faces covered in masks, and an unavoidable and unnerving feeling in the air. This microscopic entity, approximately 0.000000125 of a metre in diameter, is reminding us that we humans are not in charge of the universe, mother nature is. The mass hysteria caused by the spread of pseudoscience from the ill-informed will require a global effort, one that is guided by trustworthy, reliable information coming from the findings of science and not mystical thinking. During this unprecedented time, we need to seek out the experts and ensure we don’t fall into the trap of giving in to the circulating misinformation – mass purchasing of toilet paper, doomsday prepping, using a sauna to kill bacteria, overdosing vitamin C, locking yourself indoors and stopping exercise completely. These ill-advised strategies lack an evidence-base and the data dismisses their effectiveness. Furthermore, we need to think about the effect that our reaction and strategy implementation will have on the people around us and on ourselves in the long run.

The Impact of the Media

Whilst pandemics such as this leave us at the mercy of biology for the most part, what is often overlooked is the degree of control policy makers gain over the regulation of society, and the downstream consequences this has. When authorities are required to ramp up the making of policies, especially those that affect an entire nation, the media is the vehicle that drives the dissemination of vital information to the public. Thus, the information we receive via the media will play an enormous role in shaping our opinions and views on important health related matters. These are also some of the bugs of a civilised society and can be equally as pathogenic as COVID-19.

If you are reading this article you are most likely aware of the positive benefits that regular exercise can induce – increased strength, muscle mass, fat loss, cardiovascular health, blood glucose control, executive function and not to mention the mental therapy that we so often urge for. 

How about exercise and its effect on immunity? 

Improved immunity is often an under-appreciated health benefit of exercise – whether it be aerobic or resistance training (RT) – and avoiding exercise throughout this pandemic will not be doing your immune system any favours. As the philosopher Paracelsus once said, “the dose makes the poison.” In the field of exercise immunology, it is quite clear that the immune system reflects the magnitude of physiological stress experienced by the exerciser. The harder you train – relative to your maximal abilities – the greater the stress response your body will exhibit, and the greater the chance you will experience immune system suppression. 

Yes, suppression of the immune system due to maximal exertion and/or high training workloads can occur. This consideration is important. Although the aim of this article is to highlight the positive benefits of exercise on immunity, I cannot disregard this critical point. Although immunosuppression due to hard overloading training may be a part of the process and required for long-term physiological adaptation to hard training – at this point in time, COVID-19 couldn’t care less about your training goals and WILL affect your health if it gets near you. The more vulnerable your immune system is, the more adverse COVID-19’s effects appear to be. Remember, this is a consideration for the population who may be training for more demanding and rigorous athletic/performance events, for e.g. powerlifting, bodybuilding, marathon running, etc. The physiological demand of these sports – whether driven by training, nutrition, or both –  is typically quite high and the immune system tends to suffer. If you fall into this category it DOES NOT mean you should stop training. The rational option would be to consult your doctor, and coach to ensure you take the appropriate and necessary precautions – whether they are hygiene, nutritional or recovery orientated.

As for the rest of the population (the non-competitive population), who are regular gym goers, you will not need to worry about the above to the same degree. However, awareness is important and will help detect misinformation.

The immune system, which is a complex network of cells and molecules that function to protect the host (you) from invading microorganisms, prevent disease, and facilitate wound healing can greatly benefit from regular, moderated exercise. The effects of exercise on strengthening our immune systems are quite profound and accumulate overtime – from session to session – and eventually forming an immunological adaptation. If the human body experiences an ‘adaptation’, it has thus advanced its ability to handle the stress that caused the adaptation. The human body, comprising trillions of cells, was designed to adapt to stress. In this case, acute and transient immune responses that are encountered after each training session accumulate over time and the concomitant outcome is a more robust immune system. 

Remember Iron Man’s first suit? The one he built out of scrap metal while being held hostage in a cave. Compare that to the suit he wore in End Game. More robust, highly impenetrable and armed with devices and weapons to combat the enemy. As he faced new challenges, he adapted his suit to keep up with the increasing demands, each time better than the last.

Your immune system goes through the same process throughout its development in response to exercise. The advanced suit – that can only be attained with lifelong exercise – is a potent means of reducing non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease and other chronic inflammatory disorders. Furthermore, all the ‘weapons’ your immune system can be metaphorically armed with – if prompted to adapt – will decrease the risk of contracting a range of communicable diseases including viral and bacterial infections. The evidence in this domain is substantial and clearly demonstrates the benefits of having a more advanced immune system ‘suit’ that is generated from long-term exercise in conjunction with other health and wellness promoting behaviours. Although COVID-19 has the potential to penetrate any type of suit, an advanced suit will likely stand a stronger chance at fighting it off and decreasing the magnitude of its effect on your health.

Building a strong suit becomes increasingly important as you age. The process of aging results in whole-body physiological changes including decreased immune competency; the ability of your immune system to handle threats. Long term, regular physical activity improves immune competency across the lifespan! Meaning it does not matter how old you are, your suit – no matter how far to the left of the above picture – can be upgraded through various forms of exercise! Yes, Your immunity can be remodelled at any age through a multitude of mechanisms. This point is crucial and exemplifies the human body’s freakish – yet fortunate – ability to adapt to its environment – the environment that you choose to set.

An environment that comprises regular physical activity and adequate nutritional provision is an environment that will yield positive health adaptations in the long run and combined with adequate sleep cannot be surpassed – no matter how much hand sanitiser you use! Avoiding exercise throughout this COVID-19 pandemic serves no utility to your health and is not recommended by any of the experts. Listen to this interview on Michael Osterholm, an expert in infectious disease epidemiology for more – he quotes exercise, healthy nutrition and sleep as three of the handful of things you can do to decrease your chances of being adversely affected by COVID-19. 

I understand that going to your local gym may cause fears of contracting the virus, however, considering person-to-person spread of COVID-19 occurs mainly through respiratory transmission (breathing in) of infectious circulating air, and not so much through topical exposure (touch), the chances of being infected in a gym are just as high as in your local supermarket, or at the toilet paper auction! 

Of course, decreasing unessential exposure to other people will be in the best interest of not only you, but that of your family, friends and anyone you come in close contact with regularly. Particularly the elderly, and immune-compromised. If attending the gym is off the cards, then training at home might be a viable option.

Here are some of the recommendations and precautions we are implementing at JPS that you can use at your local gym (assuming there have been no reported cases of COVID-19):

  • Stay home if you show any symptoms of the COVID-19 virus (See HERE)
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after you work out.
  • Avoid handshaking and hugging your gym buddies.
  • Be mindful of your hygiene whilst training and wipe equipment after use.
  • Encourage others to adopt hygiene best practice as per above recommendations.
  • Refrain from going to the gym if you have returned form international travel in the past 14 days, and workout at home instead.

If you decide to refrain from going to the gym and are planning on working out at home, try the following:

  • Perform 3-5 full body workouts per week.
  • Incorporate 6-10 exercises per workout with 3-5 sets per exercise.
  • Take all sets very close to failure – this may mean the repetitions performed in each set will be quite high.
  • Keep rest periods short (30-60 seconds) to increase metabolic stress (pump/burn) in the target muscle.
  • Make exercises difficult by using a resistance where possible (bands, weights etc.), using slow eccentrics, isometric pauses or focusing on one muscle group in each session to increase fatigue in the target muscle.

I hope this piece has increased your awareness towards exercise and its effects on your immunity; potentially filtering through any of the misconceptions that you may have held or conflicting information which you couldn’t decipher. COVID-19 needs to be taken seriously, and rational strategies need to be implemented to ensure the best decisions are made. Not exercising serves no beneficial purpose and continuing to train at your local gym comes with the same risk factor as many other everyday tasks, including going to work – remember, COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through the inhalation of infectious air and not ‘touch’. This invisible virus may haunt our daily lives for the coming months, but we cannot put our lives on halt. Precautions need to be taken – especially for the elderly and others at risk – and life must continue with increased awareness, hygienic practice, abidance of government and World Health Organisation standards, good nutrition practices and exercise.

And remember, if you are unwell or show any symptoms, or have been in close contact with someone who is unwell, has recently returned from overseas or shows symptoms, play it safe for the good of our community stay away from public places to avoid spread and seek medical attention.

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