During winter, most people avoid exercising because they feel it is too cold to be outdoors and if they exercise, they will have a sore throat, catch a cold (congestion or runny nose) or develop a cough.
All these are symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). No less than 200 different viruses can cause an URTI. In spite of all the scientific and medical advances, it is extremely challenging to develop a single vaccine or flu shot to address this problem.
The research factor
A 2010 study by David Nieman, director, Human Performance Laboratory, North Carolina Research Campus, US (advanced online article in British Journal of Sports Medicine, but not yet published), has found that URTI’s intensity, frequency and duration is reduced markedly in physically fit and active adults. While various demographic characteristics, including older age, the male gender and being married, lead to lower URTI rates, on the lifestyle front the study found that near-daily aerobic activities reduced to almost half the incidence of URTI frequency and symptomatology.
Another study by Jessica Chubak, researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, Seattle, debunked the myth that post-menopausal women are at a higher risk of infection and there is no way they can be helped. In a study (The American Journal of Medicine, November 2006) done over one year on post-menopausal women, she found that women who did regular moderate exercise (166 minutes a week, four times a week) showed lowered URTI risk than women who exercised modestly (once a week, 45-minute stretching session).
Sweat it out: Regular moderate exercise boosts immunity.
Why being fit counts
Why should this be the case? Each bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise causes a transient increase in the recirculation of immunoglobins, cells involved in innate immune defences. Even though this is a temporary phenomenon and lasts only a few hours after the exercise session, each session improves immunity against pathogens, which can then lead to reduction of overall URTI incidence.
Intensity of exercise is a very important factor. It is recommended that outside of your normal work or daily responsibilities, you should engage in some form of physical activity four-five times a week, if not more. The activity must at least moderately increase your breathing and heart rate and make you sweat, and you should carry out the activity for at least 30 minutes. Choose from activities such as brisk walking, cycling, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, squash and swimming.
Test that intensity
To check the intensity of any physical activity, try and talk in full sentences when you are doing the exercise. If you can, you aren’t putting in enough effort. Also, as you go along, it’ll become very clear that intensity could mean different things to different people. There is no one size (speed) that fits all. I strongly suggest you don’t start competing with others. This is not about a rat race, but more about you and what level of intensity in physical exercise you can handle.
The take-home message is to start slow and gradually build up steam as you become more accustomed to the exercises. More importantly, it’s never too late to start exercising. Till there is a magic pill out there that will take care of your fitness, it’s important that you take a more pro-active role in getting yourself fitter.
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