The current COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly caused a sudden shift in how we as individuals, community members, and inhabitants of this world are functioning on a day to day basis to try to reduce the risk of personally getting and subsequently transmitting COVID-19 in our community.
A question that gets asked frequently to health care providers is, “What more can I do to protect myself from viral illnesses such as COVID-19?” Well aside from the precautions that are well laid out by Health Canada and public health officials, we thought we would help you understand, and even give you tips on how to implement exercise into your day-to-day life so that your immune system gets strong and ready to go to battle when a virus is encountered by your body.
The inevitable truth
It is inevitable that COVID-19 will sweep through our community. It is up to us as a community to influence:
- How fast it spreads,
- How many people it affects,
- Which groups of people are affected by the virus, and
- How many people will die from the virus.
What we know needs to happen
Here is what is expected of each and every one of us in order to slow how fast COVID-19, or any virus for that matter, spreads through our community:
- Socially distance yourself from each other. This means that, if you have to go out into the community, you should stay a minimum of 6 feet away from each other.
- Stay home. Yes, social distancing is only if you have to go out. It doesn’t give you permission to go out and live at the borders of that 6 feet.
- Quarantine yourself if you are returning from travel from an outside country, or you have signs and symptoms of fever/car/shortness of breath, Quarantine yourself in your house, even consider quarantining yourself from other people in your family if they don’t have symptoms.
- Touch your face in newly conventional ways. Cough into your elbow, scratch your nose on your upper arm, and rub your eyes with your shoulder. Otherwise, don’t touch your face.
- Wash your hands. Rub your mitts together with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and if you need to, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 62% isopropyl alcohol.
- Wipe everything down. Often. Wipe surfaces, knobs, handles, switches, phones, remote control devices, and any frequently handled objects in the house at least once a day with a household disinfectant or Lysol type cloth.
What else can we as a community do
Our sports medicine and rehabilitation team at Reactivate Muskoka thought that we would take this opportunity to review some novel ways to enhance your immune system to further reduce your personal, and your community’s, risk of being affected by COVID-19.
If you do get the virus, we hope that you can take these practical concepts, understand why exercise is an important way to boost the health of your immune system and put them into practice to improve your immune response to the COVID-19, and any virus for that matter. It will reduce the severity and duration of your illness should you get it, and might even stop it in its tracks before it enters your body, based on results from other research looking at cold and viral illnesses.
The magic medicine called exercise
You may have heard about this new up and coming wonder drug called “exercise”. Exercise has been found not only to lower your risk of heart disease, alter the course of diabetes and provide a mood boost; but it also is known to fight off viral infections, shorten the duration of viral illnesses, and reduce the severity of symptoms that come along with it.
How you can use exercise to your advantage when fighting a virus
Long story short, in the last 15 years, research studies repeatedly demonstrated the positive impacts exercise has on our immune system. The best part is that the type of exercise studied are activities which the majority of people can do any exercise that can be done at moderate intensity; this can be aerobic (i.e. walking, running, biking, swimming) or lifting weights that moderately increases your heart rate can help you and boost your immune system both in the short- and long-term.
How exercise affects your immune system in the short term
- It gives your immune system a boost.
First of all, and most importantly, regular aerobic exercise stimulates the body to release more infection and cancer-fighting immune cells into our bloodstream where they can actively seek out areas of the body where viral and bacterial infections, and even some cancers, are occurring.
Additionally, regular exercise helps your immune system mount a greater response or attack more quickly.
- Mental health affects our physical health and how our immune system responds to infections.
Studies have shown that immune systems are not as robust in individuals under a lot of stress, compared to people who have lower levels of stress, resulting in decreased readiness to fight off insults. We also know that regular exercise helps to improve stress levels, anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other mental health conditions.
So with exercise lowering stress and boosting your immune system robustness and responsiveness to infections, it is a two for one deal.
There have been studies that have looked at how exercise affects how often, how severe, and how long people have colds in both high and low stressed people. They have found that highly stressed people, particularly men, appear to benefit more from physical activity than those with lower stress levels, and have lower risks of getting sick.
- Exercise helps immunizations be more effective.
Even a single bout of exercise a couple of hours before you go and get an immunization has been shown to improve your body’s response and uptake of immunizations such as the flu shot, pneumonia shot, or shingles vaccine.
How will regular exercise help me in the long-term?
Exercise is your body’s own anti-inflammatory medicine. It is true that right after you exercise, your body will experience a mild, transient suppression of its immune system. However, beyond a 90-minute window where the body is in an inflammatory state, after these hormones and chemicals that are associated with inflammation in your body are significantly lower. This means that a lot of the symptoms that are associated with colds, which are inflammatory in origin (swollen and red throats and noses, irritated and inflamed airways), will be less.
This is potentially the case in why we treat other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, and certain metabolic diseases, like diabetes, with regular exercise. Yes, part of the problem with heart disease that leads to heart attacks, and the after-effects of diabetes, can be attributed to inflammation. So, if you are wondering why exercise is often prescribed for heart disease, diabetes, and even people with cancer, this is the real reason why. To make things worse, we know that hormones coming from fat cells promote inflammation in your body. So, once again, exercise has a double whammy effect on your body beyond simply losing weight.
- Regular exercise results in fewer colds, and if you get one, it won’t be as bad.
Studies have reproducibly demonstrated that all of this immune-boosting helps to decrease both the frequency, as well as the duration, of respiratory illnesses.
That’s right, people who are active regularly get fewer colds caused by viruses, and when they do they aren’t as bad and they recover more quickly.
- Exercise is the elixir of life as it will slow down how fast you age.
It is inevitable that, as we age, our immune system becomes less responsive to viral illnesses. It responds more slowly, and to a lesser degree of magnitude.
However, lucky for those that exercise regularly, early results from studies are indicating that people who participate in regular moderate aerobic exercise have better functioning immune systems that can respond more quickly and more robustly to infections when compared to those who lead sedentary lives.
So, what is the bottom line?
Well, in short, exercise. If you are already active and exercise regularly, great. Keep it up. If you aren’t active, then seriously and truly consider incorporating moderate exercise into your daily routine.
You don’t have to do it fast. You don’t have to do it hard. You just have to do it.
What is moderate exercise? And for how long?
The definition of “moderate exercise” is an individual one. Moderate exercise for a trained athlete is different than one for someone who doesn’t exercise regularly.
No one expects you to head out your front door and walk for several hours, or start running, or lift weights for an hour. The good old “talk test” states that moderate activity is exercising to an intensity where you can still keep up a conversation with someone.
As for how long to exercise, it is okay to exercise for short periods of time several times a day, but try to work up to 20 minutes a day, 7 days a week; or 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. If you can do it all at once, great. If you can do a bit more, great. Just make sure it is moderate.
Practical ideas for you for exercise and wellness during a viral illness
Those of us who live in Muskoka have an abundance of beautiful space around us. So why don’t we take advantage of this? Here are some practical ideas for you (click on the links for more information):
Walk, hike, and get outdoors.
Muskoka is big and beautiful. Discover areas you haven’t found before with a moderate intensity walk or hike. Walk on the opposite side of the road so you can see traffic heading towards you, and be courteous to the motorists on the road. Plus, keep your social distance from the other walkers out there.
- Make walking or hiking a whole-body exercise with nordic pole walking
- Read here to learn more about the technique of nordic pole walking. It is a bit different than just using poles. If you are a visual learner, here is a video you can watch.
- If you don’t have nordic poles, here is how you can make your own.
- Consider walking or hiking on any of the multitudes of trails in Algonquin Park, Limberlost Nature Reserve, Arrowhead Park, and so many others. However, a number of these are not open right now due to COVID-19. But when they do, head out there. Click here to go to a resource to start your path in motion.
Your body is your gym
Workout at home to what you consider to be a moderate intensity. There are lots of online resources available, and some of our local fitness facilities and instructors are offering online classes that you can do in the comfort of your own home.
- Vita Fitness in Bracebridge hosts free workouts online on their Facebook page that are free and available to everyone.
- Katie Wilmhurst’s fitness facility members have access to unlimited classes online for a fee.
- Studio 3 in Port Carling is offering online classes for a donation to one of a number of local charities.
- If you are on social media, there are a number of fitness gurus who post bodyweight exercise routines every day. To name a few, The Prehab Guys, The Runners Academy, and The Training Manual just to name a few. There are a number of online resources available and apps for little to no cost. The CBC compiled a nice list of these.
- Body by Design is offering online classes for all of its members.
- Ahimsa: is offering scheduled yoga classes to their members and you can sign up for their classes on their website.
- Veda Yoga is a local yoga studio that is also offering yoga classes online to their members.
Putting all of this together
Your first line of defence against a virus entering your body are the things we are all hearing about; wash your hands, stay at home, practice hardcore social distancing to the point you and your family feel like no one else exists in the world.
But give your immune system a boost during this time when we need our body’s defences the most. Get enough sleep. Drink plenty of fluids. Relax, meditate and control your stress. Laugh lots. And of course, get plenty of exercise.
Be smart. Stay safe. And together we can beat this.
*Article co-written by Dr. Rich Trenholm and Dr. Erin Creasor.
Dr. Trenholm moved to Muskoka in 2003, after completing his residency in Family Medicine, Obstetrics and Emergency Medicine at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
After rediscovering his love for being active through the sport of triathlon, he decided to incorporate this personal passion with a professional interest in Sports Medicine. This exciting field of medicine builds on his strong foundation in anatomy and biomechanics that he gained from completing a Masters of Science in Kinesiology at McMaster University.
Dr. Trenholm’s strength is looking at each patient as a unique structure of moving parts, in which movement at one part will affect movements at another. By looking at the human body as a puzzle full of complex movements, Dr. Trenholm works hard to determine a diagnosis of what is going on and put a plan in place of how to best get patients back moving again and enjoying life to its fullest.
Dr. Trenholm is a former national board member of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine (CASEM), is the Chair of CASEM’s Endurance Sports Medicine special interest group, and is actively involved in research in the field of Sport and Exercise medicine. He actively participates in local and national sporting events providing medical support as a physician, and recently returned from the 2019 Para Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
A referral from a client’s Primary Care Provider is required to see Dr. Trenholm as his services are covered through OHIP. Alternatively, if clients are already seeing an Allied Health Professional (Physiotherapist, Chiropractor, Massage Therapist, Naturopath, Osteopath), the Allied Health Professional can ask that a consultation request be made by a client’s Primary Care Provider.
Dr. Creasor is a second-year Family Medicine Resident with extensive training in emergency and wilderness medicine. In her spare time, she takes every opportunity to get outdoors and be active and hopes to continue to encourage others to seek activity in whatever way they can throughout the rest of her career.