Forget chiseled six-pack abs and defined triceps and skinny jeans. Let’s work out for ... our T cells?

Here’s another motivation to get moving. It turns out that exercise is good for our immune system.

Tracie Dunek, a family medicine doctor at the Columbia-St Mary’s Highland Family Health Center, said that moderate, routine exercise, three to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, can prevent us from getting a cold. Or, it can lessen the severity of the symptoms if we do get sick.



So everything from strength training to treadmill running to yoga right now will help us fight the cold and flu season that’s coming.

“Exercise improves your immune response because it increases your T cells,” said Dunek. “I always think of our immune system as an army. There are so many different immune cells in our body and every day, they’re fighting things off. They fight a war every day.

“When you exercise, you just increase your army numbers. The T cells are a specific immune cell that helps to fight off colds and flus. They all increase with moderate exercise.”

It also helps to exercise while we have a cold. We just have to listen to our bodies a little bit, but if we can get in a little activity, we may return to health faster.

Eric Gramza, the owner of Fuel Up. GO! Fitness center and a personal trainer (certified through NSCA) said that if someone generally follows an exercise routine, on a regular basis, it is safe – and even beneficial – to continue to exercise with a cold. He said two factors have to be considered. What’s the severity of the illness? And what’s the ability of the exerciser?

He said if a person feels better on cold medicine, and can make it through a work day, they can work out and get the benefits of working out.

“You want to keep the body going because that helps the immune system going,” said Gramza. “The body is used to those hormones and endorphins. It is a good idea to get your exercise to release those feel good-hormones.

“It will help you recover faster. Exercise itself is an immune-boosting mechanism. You get the heart pumping, you get your metabolism going – and that brings the good nutrients into the body.”

Likewise, the metabolism helps moves the waste products out, and all of that happens at a faster pace with an active person.

Inactivity, he said, leads to a slower heart rate and lower metabolism, and maybe a slower recovery.

Gramza said there are times to consider more rest, or a different activity, however.

A fever – anything 100 degrees or higher – means that exercise is going to elevate our core temperature, so we want to rest until the fever breaks.

Bronchitis or an illness with the lungs is also reason to rest. Gramza suggests doing an activity that’s not cardio intensive, where the heart rate doesn’t get high enough for labored breathing. Some strength training would be OK, or a walk, or maybe even yoga.

“Your body wants all of that,” said Gramza. “When you do take a break, the body isn’t releasing those hormones, the metabolism isn’t cranking the way it was and the body isn’t acting the same way as it was.”

He said people who are used to a 60-minute workout at a very rigorous pace could try 30 minutes at a 60% exertion level when they’re under the weather.

Nutrition can help here too, said Gramza. Staying hydrated and eating unprocessed fruits and vegetables, loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, could help us get well faster.

As for those boxes and bottles of products in our stores – the ones that claim to boost our immune systems and help us get better faster with a miracle liquid or pill? Gramza isn’t completely sold. Nothing more than a multivitamin is recommended by him, unless maybe vitamin C; and supplements should never take over as our main source of nutrients and food.

Dunek said some studies say that certain supplements may help (vitamin C, Echinacea and garlic) but there are other studies that disprove their effectiveness. She said that an anti-inflammatory like Aleve will shorten the course of a cold by two days.

Saline nasal spray, salt water gargle or even the classic salty chicken soup will help the mucus membranes and “salt water does tend to kill germs,” she said.

But exercise – and thankfully it doesn’t have to be intense, like running a marathon – will benefit all of us at any age or weight when it comes to fighting a cold.

“In fact, too much exercise can have an opposite affect,” said Dunek. “You know how hard it is for your body to run a marathon. You have to recover from that.

“As long as someone isn’t asthmatic – as long as they can breathe well – exercise should be OK. In fact, I call exercise the only fountain of youth we have. Immunity does begin to wane with age, often by the age 60 or 65.”

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