image of virus that causes sickness coronavirus covid-19

How to Exercise to Avoid Sickness

Dan Sullivan

Dan Sullivan

So while we are all still having tons of fun with this whole “let’s shut down society so that people don’t get sick” thing, I thought I could at least make myself useful and discuss how you might be able to exercise so as to avoid sickness.

The first thing that came to my mind was cardio. That’s what we always think of when we imagine staying healthy, right? You’ve got that image of that sixty something year-old woman who can run from the base of Mt. Rainer to the Roman Coliseum (yes, across the ocean) and be back in time for a kale smoothly with her son to celebrate his 20th Olympic gold medal, or something.

Whatever, you get the point. There are those people who just never seem to get sick and always have an annoyingly positive outlook on life and they are ALWAYS runners.

Now, I like running, I have nothing against running, but I figured there had to be more to it than that when it came to learning how to exercise to avoid a sickness like the coronavirus.

Turns out, there are a couple of key things to keep in mind.

Exercise of Any Type

That runner chick we talked about, the old one who always has a handkerchief full of granola in her pocket for some reason, she has the right idea but you don’t have to be exactly like her to stay free of sickness.

From what I’ve read, there is no evidence to suggest that any one type of exercise is better than another when it comes to boosting your immune system.

HOWEVER! There is evidence to suggest that diversifying the type of exercise you engage in will give you the best bang for your buck.

To oversimplify what researchers are finding, basically when your body feels challenged, but not too challenged, it helps your body’s defense cells do their jobs better. Your body can rather easily adapt to one type of exercise and not feel challenged by it anymore. Hence, changing up the type of exercise you do on a regular basis helps your body to feel consistently challenged, thus encouraging your immune system to do its job better.

Exercise Frequency and Intensity is the Key

But even more important than the type of exercise you do is the time and intensity. Your immune system gets a quick boost of energy anytime you engage in moderate to vigorous activity. A study published in the Journal of Sports Health Science found that this can compound when done on a regular basis. Like, you know, every day for example.

They also found that if you go outside and relentlessly beat the ground with a sledge hammer like a crazy person on cocaine for an hour or longer that you actually reduce your immune system’s capabilities. That is to say beating the ground with a sledge hammer like you’re on cocaine would count as high-intensity exercise. You know, we use different terminology. 

They even found that athletes who undergo a bout of competition-level exercise or high-intensity training are actually more susceptible to illness for a little while afterwards.

Therefore, the best way to boost your immune system is to exercise at a moderate intensity for a duration that can be tolerated on an almost daily schedule.

Now, let’s qualify here that this is highly individual. What may be “moderate exercise” to one person will not be the same thing for another person. Likewise, how long you’ll be able to tolerate that moderate exercise will also vary depending on your fitness level, your experience with exercise, your age, and your body type.

That having been said, how do you figure out what’s right for you?

Moderate Intensity Exercise: How it Feels

The primary way to determine what moderate intensity exercise is for you is by using heart rate calculations. Unless you’re extremely analytical and love numbers and measuring things, this is not the way I’d recommend doing it.

Rather, I like to instruct people to go on how the exercise feels and how it alters your breathing rate. For cardio, Livestrong recommends doing the talk test and states, “If you’re able to talk, but not sing, during your workout, then you’ve likely hit the target heart rate for moderate-intensity cardio.”

To add to this, I’ve created my own test to help illustrate moderate intensity exercise. You’ve hit moderate intensity if you finish your workout, your heart rate is up significantly, you’re breathing heavy, and you’re still able to stand up. Now comes the qualifier: you’re at moderate intensity if all that is true and you feel like you could keep going right now if someone offered you $5 to keep going.

When you’ve gone through a high intensity or extreme exercise, there ain’t nothing getting you off the ground. Not even $5.

For strength training, you should probably be able to complete all your sets at a selected weight, but feel like you’re just barely getting through those last 1-3 reps.

How to Start a Habit

All of my research emphasized a gradual progression into habitual exercise. Once again, we’re left with the concept of habits.

I’d just like to again point out that it’s not what you do, it’s how consistently you can do it that matters. Your immune system gets a long-term boost when you habitually exercise over and over and over again.

I’ve yet to find a sustainable excuse why MOST people can’t work up to exercising in some fashion an average of 6 days a week.

Let me point out the two qualifying words in that statement. The first is MOST, meaning of course there will be some people with health complications for whom consistent exercise might not be possible. The second is “work up to”. Don’t try to eat an ostrich with a straw. Cut it up into bite sized chunks that you can manage and gradually get up to your goal.

10-Minutes a Day

I’ve talked about exercising for 10 minutes a day before. I want to give a little more detailed look at what that can look like as well as an example plan for how to get started.

Really there’s two approaches to this. I’m going to give you both and then tell you which is my favorite and why.

The first approach is to start with 10 minutes twice to three times a week. After that first week you go to four. Then you go to five, and so on.

The second approach is to start with 1 minute a day every single day of the week, then work to 3 minutes, then to 5, then to 8, and finally to 10.

Both methods get you to 10 minutes a day in about 1 month but to me, one is more effective than the other. Can you guess which?

It’s the second approach. Why? Because it starts you out with some small wins. The easiest way to build a habit is to start with consistency and increase intensity gradually. You get used to showing up every day and the only thing you have to focus on is going a little longer.

If you don’t show up every day, well maybe we’ll push that 3rd workout in the week to Friday. The girls want to go out for coffee in the morning on Friday? Ok, maybe push it to Saturday because I have work and then I’m going drinking. Oops, didn’t count on getting drunk and laid in the same night. Now I overslept Saturday morning and I’m hungover. Oh well, fuck it. You get the idea.

By the way, if you get good at 10 minutes a day, keep going up from there. 12 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc.

Consistency of Enjoyment

Whatever you choose to do, make sure you like it. “But I just don’t like exercise.” That’s probably because you haven’t found a style that you enjoy. When I say exercise, I don’t just mean lifting weights or running, I mean anything that involves movement and gets your heart rate up. Again, these studies don’t limit one type of exercise as being the most beneficial to immune system health.

Maybe you love to dance, maybe you enjoy martial arts, maybe you like beating the ground with a sledge hammer, or maybe you just like going for walks. Whatever it is, it’s fine, just make sure it gets your heart rate up.

“But I don’t like the feeling of physical stress.” That’s why you start gradually. You probably don’t like it because your body is so deconditioned that even a small amount of exercise will make you want to face plant into the ground. But your body will adapt if you impose even a little stress on it, and then it gets easier and easier to deal with that feeling. And then you’ll feel great! You’ll feel great.

Take Aways

  • Exercise of any type can help improve the immune system’s functioning as long as it is done on a consistent basis.
  • Moderate exercise every day is the easiest and most enjoyable way to improve your immune system and stay healthy.
  • Very high intensity exercise in frequently can lower immune system functioning. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that it won’t help you immune system.
  • Start a habit of 10 minutes a day of exercise. Begin with a few minutes each day and work your way up to 10. Don’t miss a day for any reason!
  • Make sure you enjoy the exercise you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, then you won’t stick with it. It’s as simple as that.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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