Respiratory viral infections, ranging from the common cold to the more serious flu (influenza), are very common in the cooler months, beginning in October and peaking in December-January. This is an annual trend, but the emergence of the swine flu has made it a bigger cause for concern.
Start with a shot, but don’t stop there
Of course, the primary method of flu prevention is through vaccination. But often, the vaccine is in short supply. And even when it’s available, a large percentage of the Indian population fails to get it. It’s the same story now. H1N1 vaccines may be available for high-risk professionals such as doctors and nurses by the year-end, but vaccination for the common man will only be available in bulk by the second quarter of 2010, we hear.
Also, as early as 2002, an Australian study led by Trang Vu of the Royal Melbourne Hospital pointed out in the Vaccine journal that during the most infectious months, even regular influenza vaccination is only efficacious in preventing 75% of hospitalizations, and that figure goes down to 45% and 30% for older people, more than 65 and 75 years of age, respectively.
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Predictions by various healthcare organizations, including the World Health Organization, that swine flu will come back with a vengeance this winter means we cannot take these figures lightly. In turn, this calls for a more proactive approach.
It may sound surprising, but lifestyle changes can prevent not only chronic diseases, but also respiratory viral infections. Moderate intensity exercise has been shown to have a protective effect. Stephen A. Martin and colleagues at the University of Illinois, US, noted in the Exercise and Sports Sciences Journal (October), that “moderate-intensity exercise reduces inflammation and improves the immune response to respiratory viral infections…” (moderate being 30-45 minutes a day).
Exercise vs illness: Too much exercise, or for too long, can leave you vulnerable.
However, the article goes on to say: “Prolonged intense exercise may do this as well but may shift the balance too much, actually allowing the virus to gain a better foothold and cause greater pathology.” A regimen of 150 minutes or more qualifies as “prolonged”.
This translates to: Get moving to get healthy, but take it easy beyond a point if you want to stay that way.
Not exactly surprising, though the review is a timely one. Back in the summer of 2004, osteopath Anne Gibbons, my tutor at the London College of Osteopathic Medicine, told me that the flu was the No. 1 contraindication for high-intensity runs.
Don’t overdo it
I personally experienced this twice in two consecutive years. In late October 2008, I had a mild episode of the flu; but since I’m an iron man (obviously!), I carried on training for an ultra marathon where I planned to do 200km in 24 hours. I was running 70-80 km in 7-8 hours, with the event only a month away. Over two weeks, the flu got worse, until I couldn’t even drag myself from the bed to the bathroom, less than 10ft away. I was knocked out for weeks. Less than a week before the race, after the symptoms had subsided for about five days, I went running with a friend. I couldn’t even survive 5km.
This year, in early October, I caught the flu once more. Again, because of my stubborn nature, it got worse as I tried to run before I had recovered completely. This time, I was out of commission for more than a month. I had to take the hard call of passing up the Bangalore Ultra Marathon last month.
As the wise man said, everything in moderation is good, and too much of even a good thing can be bad. This also applies to exercise, certainly when it comes to respiratory viral infections.
Rajat Chauhan is a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and CEO of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to Rajat at firstname.lastname@example.org