Jodi Heckel | Sacrificing physical health could increase pandemic’s effects

One of the concerns exercise immunology researcher Jeff Woods has about coronavirus is the “second wave” effects — not the surge of infections the country is experiencing right now, but the health risks from a decrease in physical activity due to the pandemic.

Woods is a University of Illinois professor of kinesiology and community health who studies the effect of exercise on the immune system, the gut microbiome and aging. Research from his lab has shown that exercise boosts the immune system.

Exercise also improves health in general, and mitigates some of the factors associated with a greater risk of complications from COVID-19, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The disruption of exercise routines and reduction in physical fitness may increase susceptibility to infection, and it can increase those risk factors, Woods wrote in an article published in May in the journal Sports Medicine and Health Science.

He worried at the time that people were less physically active in the first few months of the pandemic when public health recommendations urged them to stay at home and gyms closed. Now that we’re facing months of cold weather and higher rates of infection, those concerns have returned.

“Cold weather brings special challenges,” Woods said.

But it’s still safe to exercise, even indoors, as long as you take precautions, he said.

“If you’re exercising in public gyms and fitness centers, wear a mask. Go at less busy times of day. You might have to alter your schedule if you can. Don’t be afraid to move away from others if you feel your personal space is being violated,” Woods said.

An alternative is exercising at home using an online training program. Woods is a cyclist, and he uses Zwift, which has structured workouts and group rides.

“It’s a great way to maintain fitness and exercise with others,” he said. “They’re not right in the room with you, but you can show up at the same time and have conversations with others.”

If a gym membership or subscription to an online program is not an option due to the cost, you can still exercise outside.

“Don’t give up on the outdoors,” Woods said. “Try to plan exercise around the warmer parts of the day. Get the right clothing. There is great cold weather clothing for exercising.”

Woods’ research has found that moderate endurance exercise helps protect mice against death from the flu, and that it improves the immune response from the flu vaccine in older adults by extending its protective effect.

It’s too early to have data on whether exercise helps strengthen the immune response to COVID-19. Woods and a colleague have a grant to study a virus more similar to coronavirus than the flu. They’ll look at how exercise and nutrition affect susceptibility to the virus and the immune response to infection in mice.

In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, it also provides mental health benefits. Social isolation can cause anxiety and depression, which can weaken the immune system. But regular exercise can curb those negative effects on the brain, Woods said.

“If you’re grappling with the stress of social isolation, exercise can help combat that. It can affect the brain and reduce anxiety and depression and give a sense of accomplishment. Those are all things that are good when you’re under stress because of social isolation and worry about yourself or loved ones getting COVID,” Woods said.

He recommends remaining physically active and exercising while social distancing when you are well; stopping exercise if you develop symptoms or signs of an infection; and returning to physical activity and exercise slowly following recovery. He said exercise is OK for those with a stuffy nose or head, but anyone with more severe symptoms — fever, body aches, heart palpitations — should not exercise. Those with serious COVID-19 infections may need cardiac imaging or stress testing to rule out heart damage before they return to exercising.

Those who are sedentary should start slowly, because a strenuous workout can temporarily suppress the immune system for those who aren’t used to exercising. Those who already work out regularly and strenuously should be vigilant after their hard workouts and reduce their exposure risk for a few days, Woods said.

Moderate intensity exercise up to 45 minutes is best for obtaining the health benefits of activity, including improving immune system function, Woods said. Older people who are at greatest risk for coronavirus infection also can benefit the most from regular physical activity.

via The News-Gazette

October 29, 2020 at 10:52AM

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