Exercise can help body fight off the common cold

By: By Kathy Hansen - Contributing columnist

I rarely get sick, particularly with a cold. As a matter of fact, I was on a recent five-year streak of no colds — that is — until this past weekend.

I started feeling it coming on Friday so I went to the gym to sweat it out. That did not work. Sunday when I completely lost my voice during choir, I decided to ride my Softail Harley and blow the germs away. That also was a no-go. After one day of rest and home, I am back at work still coughing and hacking but on the road to recovery. As bad as I felt the weekend, at least it gave me some inspiration for this week’s column about colds and exercise.

Cold season, unlike flu season, is really a 12-month affair. Anytime you get lots of people together in a space (airplane, mall, movie theater, etc.) chances are some of them have a cold and the germs are just waiting to jump on you. Colds are the result of a viral infection and there are several types. The one that usually causes a cold in grownups like us is called the coronavirus and happens most often in early spring and winter. Colds cause sneezing, coughing, stuffy or runny nose and sometimes fever and chills. For the most part, colds will work their way out in three to five days but some of the effects may linger longer.

If you are wondering about how colds affect our fitness routine, you are in the right place. Let’s look at three questions regarding colds and fitness.

— Does exercise prevent colds?

Regular exercise appears to have the advantage of being able to jump-start the immune system, and that can help reduce the number of colds you get. With exercise, the number and aggressiveness of certain immune cells, such as the ones called natural killer cells, increase by as much as 50 to 300 percent. If you exercise regularly, this temporary increase can help make the immune system more efficient at destroying intruders that cause illness such as colds. In one study reported in the American Journal of Medicine, women who walked for a half-hour every day for one year had half the number of colds as women who did not exercise. In this study, researchers associated regular walking with increasing levels of infection-fighting

— Does too much exercise make you catch a cold?

While for most of us over-exercising is not an issue, for some elite athletes it can be. Research indicates that athletes who participate in high intensity sports — marathon running, triathlons, etc. — can actually get more colds. When an athlete trains too hard the very white blood cells that help prevent illness decrease, leaving the body more vulnerable to getting sick. These ultra-athletes need to be aware and make sure they build in recovery days to their workouts to prevent illness.

— Can you exercise with a cold?

Because exercise may help to boost immune function, it’s usually safe to exercise with a cold as long as you listen to your body. Sometimes cold medications such as decongestants can increase your heart rate. In addition, your heart rate is increased with exercise. The combination of exercise and decongestants can cause your heart to pump very hard. You may become short of breath and have difficulty breathing.

If you have a fever with a cold, exercise may stress your body even more. That’s why it’s important to wait a few days to get back to your regular exercise regimen. Working out too hard with a cold could stress your body, causing you to feel worse. This additional stress may hinder your recovery. It is best to back your exercise down a notch until you are 100 percent.

So there you have it. Exercise to prevent colds, keep exercising a little when you are under the weather and don’t work out so hard that your immune system crashes. My advice is to keep the hand sanitizer handy, don’t drink behind your family or friends, and stay out of crowds until the sniffling season passes. As always, seek the medical advice of a physician if you have health issues before starting an exercise routine.


By Kathy Hansen

Contributing columnist

Kathy Hansen has over 30 of experience in the health and fitness field and at the moment sounds a lot like Batman when she speaks. She can be reached via e-mail at hansen02@srmc.org.

Kathy Hansen has over 30 of experience in the health and fitness field and at the moment sounds a lot like Batman when she speaks. She can be reached via e-mail at hansen02@srmc.org.