If you work out regularly or are considering starting a workout program, you may want to reconsider those high-intensity circuits. A recent call to action from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) advised that high-intensity exercise may compromise your immune system, putting you more at risk of contracting coronavirus.
“Participating in unusually high exercise workloads with the associated physiological stress is linked to transient immune dysfunction and an elevated ARI risk,” the authors wrote. “Socially induced stress has direct effects on immune function, disease susceptibility, and life span.”
During the COVDI-19 pandemic, gyms across the country shut down, compromising many Americans’ ability to workout regularly. As certain parts of the country begin to reopen, or people continue their workout routines at home, it’s important to consider how the intensity of your workout may be impacting your immune system.
“This may not be the time to train for peak performance,” ACSM doctors explained. “Individuals at high risk for [coronavirus] exposure should refrain from exhaustive exercise, overreaching, and overtraining.”
However, exercise as a whole doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact, many experts agree that moderate daily exercise can improve immune system function and has many added health benefits.
“There is a general consensus that regular bouts of short-lasting moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial for host immune defense, particularly in older adults and people with chronic diseases,” reported Exercise Immunology Review.
David Nieman, a professor at Appalachian State University conducted research showing that people who walk just 40 minutes per day experience half as many sick days due to sore throats or colds as people who don’t exercise.
The quick transition from zero or moderate exercise to sudden high-intensity workouts is what often triggers a negative immune system response, experts suggest.
In a 2005 study of mice and influenza, a group of animals that ran strenuously for weeks developed more severe and longer-lasting symptoms than mice that ran moderately before being infected.
“It is fair to say that a large increase in exercise intensity and/or duration, especially in people new to exercise, might have transient negative effects on the immune system,” study leader Jeffrey Woods said.
Additional research revealed that 90 minutes or more of high-intensity endurance exercise can make athletes susceptible to illness for up to 72 hours after the exercise session.
The ACSM authors explained that, in addition to compromising the immune system, unusually high exercise workloads can also increase the risk of developing an acute respiratory illness, such as COVID.
To combat this, the ACSM recommends starting or continuing moderate physical activity for a few hours each week. Ideally, this activity would take place at home or in an outdoor setting, where you can practice social distancing.
“During this pandemic, it is essential for those with normal health and chronic disease to activate, maintain, and advance physical activity to 30 min to 60 min most days of the week within the confines of social distancing,” they said.
While exercising, be sure to pay attention to how your body feels and don’t overwork yourself.
Remember to take breaks and increase the intensity of the workouts in small increments over time.
“The biggest thing…is to get off the couch,” lead author of the ACSM guidelines William Roberts said.