BEAT THE COLD AND FLU BUG
If you’ve not had it already you soon will. Yes it’s that time of year when those familiar symptoms - headache, blocked nose and achy muscles - come flooding back to herald the start of the dreaded cold and flu season, but research shows that physical activity done regularly and often can help keep the scratchy sore throats and chesty coughs at bay.
Adults in the UK will catch cold or flu at least three times a year, caused by viral infections to the nose and throat. Adults in contact with young children are most exposed to infection. It is normal for youngsters to become infected with anything between five and seven colds a year while their immune systems are still developing.
But before we go frantically stocking our cupboards sky high with flu powders and scouring the supermarket shelves for sources of Vitamin C, research shows that regular physical activity can help boost the immune system without having to pack ourselves full of pills.
The Sports Council for Wales – charged with delivering physical activity and sport in response to the Welsh Assembly Government Climbing Higher strategy – is urging more of us to beat the cold and flu bug by doing just 30 minutes activity five times a week.
According to the International Journal of Sports Medicine just 45 minutes of brisk walking per day cuts the duration of illness by at least half. More importantly, regular physical activity can help build a stronger resilience against infection in the first place.
When are we most at risk?
Personal experience shows that most of us are prone to catch common colds all year round, but there is increased evidence to suggest that we are twice as vulnerable during the autumn and winter months.
Colds are mostly spread by sneezing, coughing and picking up contaminated particles left on door handles, railings and telephones where the virus can survive for hours. This is why the infection is spread easily within the home or crowded offices and is quickly transferred to our nose and eyes when we touch them.
Professor Ron Eccles of the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff says "we are living in a golden age for respiratory viruses such as common cold and influenza." With crowded offices and busy transport systems, the bacteria responsible for causing common colds and flu have a limitless supply of noses to infect.
How does exercise help cold and flu?
According to experts, exercise has two ways of managing cold and flu successfully:
Sadly unless you are super-human, nobody is able to prevent their body from infection because there are multiple types of viral bacteria that cause cold and flu.
However, Dr Mark Ridgewell, a sports medicine and general practitioner says that regular physical activity helps boost our natural defences prior to infection:
"Moderate amounts of aerobic exercise such as jogging, brisk walking and cycling during the cold and flu season will help prepare the body for an invasion of foreign bacteria by stimulating blood circulation and improving the body’s cardiac function. This assists the body’s production of macrophages – vital white cells that attack bacteria.
"Once infected, the body is more readily prepared to attack the virus quickly. So while exercise will not prevent us from catching cold and flu altogether, a person who does physical activity on a regular basis is less likely to suffer for a long period of time and doubles their chance of withstanding infection when it takes hold over homes and workplaces."
Evidence shows that one of the easiest ways to lower your immune system is through becoming stressed. The increased strain of modern city life may be one of the factors contributing to the very high occurrence of common cold infections in our crowded cities.
Without the added impracticality of becoming a hermit to avoid infection, you can help yourself by getting out into the fresh air for walks, especially during the working week during lunch-breaks, busy commuting hours and evenings.
Regular physical activity can actually help reduce stress levels because it produces chemical endorphins which promote relaxation. Exercise also eliminates toxins from the body through our lungs during heavy breathing and sweating.
How much exercise should we do?
According to Dr Mark Ridgewell, excessive exercise can increase the chances of picking up a virus and physical activity should be avoided at all costs when suffering from a high temperature.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise shows that adults do not have to lift 50-pound weights, log mile after mile on the treadmill or engage in other rigorous activities to strengthen their immune system prior to infection.
Dr Mark Ridgewell says:
"Undertaking 30 minutes physical activity five times a week at a pace that gets you mildly out of breath is enough to increase the body’s natural defences. It is never too late to start reaping the benefits of exercise and modest efforts go a long way."
AVOID THE MAIN RISKS
- Take regular active breaks away from your desk, especially in busy air-conditioned offices or crowded workplaces
- Use lunch-times and breaks to take a walk in the fresh air
- Avoid busy places by getting out into the countryside or beaches for long walks
- Avoid public transport or being cooped up in a car by walking or cycling as much of the route to work as possible
- Walk the children to school as many times in the week as you can
- Use physical activity as a way of releasing stress, meeting new people and having fun