Using Exercise to Fight The Flu? » Oklahoma Sports & Fitness Athlete Blog | Running | Triathlon | Cycling | Fitness | Martial Arts | Powered by Oklahoma Sports & Fitness Magazine

Sep 232015


With flu season right around the corner, the question on every athlete’s mind is likely: “Will my exercise affect my immune system?”or “Is it okay to exercise while sick with the flu?”These are legitimate concerns, and much research has been conducted regarding theirs answers. Let us look at the facts.

In the United States, there is no denying that the flu is a seasonal epidemic. Over the last few years, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2012 and 2013, 32 million became infected with the flu. If that number isn’t enough to catch your attention, consider this: In 2010, the flu, at a staggering 54,000 deaths, was listed as the as the eight-leading cause ( It is important to understand the seriousness of this illness, yet, all is not lost.

There are many things an athlete could do besides getting vaccinated and washing one’s hands to help prevent the flu. The real question is this: Will exercise, especially of the vigorous, taxing variety, affect my ability to get the flu, or even prevent it? The experts at WebMD say: Maybe. Exercise does make your white blood cells more efficient, causing them to work both faster and better (

However, if WebMD isn’t your thing, a more extensive study was performed, and the results are much more convincing: The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conducted a survey of over 4,800 people. In their findings, using the survey in conjunction with data gathered, they found that roughly 10% of flu cases could be prevented simply by engaging in vigorous exercise. While this in itself is encouraging, it is accompanied by a word of caution: “We need to treat this result cautiously as these are preliminary findings. However, they are consistent with findings for other conditions and really show the health benefits of exercise.”said Dr Alma Adler, a physician from the institution that conducted the survey (

Further, it is important to qualify what exactly is meant by “vigorous exercise.”In order to reap the benefits that the study reveals, you should exercise in such a way that it “raises your pulse rate, makes you sweat and also makes you breathe hard and fast, to the point where you cannot say more than a few words without pausing for breath.” ( In essence, anything that gets the heart pumping, blood flowing, and makes you truly feel as if you’re working hard.

Now that we know the preventative benefits of vigorous exercise and the flu, what about using is as a recovery tool when one is already sick? I mean, if Michael Jordan can play in an NBA Finals game with the flu, and win it whilst putting up incredible statistics, it can’t be that hard right? ( It’s easier said than done. Just ask my boy Dirk Nowitzki, who did the same thing with similar results, but nowhere near the level of dominance ( All this goes to show, it isn’t easy to perform at a high level when your body is under attack. Not only is it not easy to perform, it isn’t the medical recommendation either. It’s not everyday an NBA championship is on the line, and if you’re sick, you’re better off staying in bed, getting some rest and dreaming of winning a championship rather than actually going out to try and win one. The research proves this.

Intense exercise when sick will ultimately make things worse. David Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, states: “We know that heavy exertion causes a transient downturn in immune function that can last from a few hours to a day…during heavy, prolonged physical exertion stress hormone levels such as cortisol rise, causing immune cells to function less efficiently…during this downturn, if you have a virus, it will multiply at a higher rate and make you sick.”

Nieman adds that the raising of body temperature that goes along with exercise can have a negative effect as well, stating: “If your core temperature is already up and you dare to add to it, you have to keep in mind that viruses like to multiply with higher body temperatures. Everything is multi-factorial, and that may be one factor.” (

The real key to this issue is to use exercise as a preventative measure, rather than a cure-all once you’ve been infected. The benefits far outweigh the downfalls, so get out there and walk, bike, run, and fight the flu!

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