The term moderate exercise is used frequently right now. Do you really know what it means? (Does anyone?) Without a definition it’s up to anyone’s personal interpretation. When you’re a woman in the middle of life in the middle of COVID19, should middle of the road exercise be your choice?
The problem with accepting “moderate exercise” being best for the immune system is that the theory came from studies in the 80s and 90s. Since the popularity and proven benefits of high intensity interval training for many populations little more has been done to define a best practice for immune boosting.
In other words the recommendations to get moderate exercise are simply a carry over from decades ago and ambiguous.
Questions I Answer in this Post
- What is moderate exercise, and is it really the best right now?
- If you’re not exercising right now, should you start?
- If you’re exercising before COVID19, how should you modify your exercise?
- What signs would suggest you may be compromising your immune system?
- What other factors could deem exercise “too much”?
I want to lead with this:
A single bout of high intensity exercise increased cells associated with immunity 5x. The increase in immune cells was greatest in subjects who were of moderate fitness level before the study, compared to athletes in the study. That makes sense if you compare it to someone who has 100 lbs to lose vs. 10 lbs to lose. The individual with the most room for improvement will lose the most weight.
That means for you: if you are already a regular exerciser this means you have the greatest potential to boost your immune system by not just blindly doing a “something is better than nothing” approach, but by planning optimal frequency, duration, and intensity.
Optimal Not Moderate Exercise
It’s important right now that we define what optimal exercise is specific to the immune system. There is evidence that the right amount of exercise can boost the production of macrophages, the kind of white blood cells that “eat” bacteria and viruses.
It’s true that too much intense exercise over a period of time can temporarily decrease immune function and increase oxidative stress, however a single bout of vigorous exercise has proven to enhance not suppress immunity.
Behavior of almost all immune cells in the bloodstream is altered in some way during and after exercise. For decades it has been accepted that these changes result in a temporary decline in immunity in the hours following exercise. In fact, you may have been told, don’t overdo it: just get moderate exercise, during COVID19.
That “advice” is confusing. It leaves a lot of questions about what you can and should do.
Say Bye-Bye to Cliches & Generalizations
That advice might make you think, “something is better than nothing” and leave it at that. I don’t know about you but I have long been told, everything in moderation. Well, we don’t live in those times we did 30 and 40 years ago. That advice is no longer applicable. So if you’re exercising, let’s look at how to optimize it and your immune system.
Just continuing to do what you’ve been doing, or just starting to do more of what you have always done could do less good. So by the time we’re done with this post I want you to have a better idea about how to structure your own schedule and how to course correct. You can continue to pursue goals as long as you make your primary goal immunity.
Typing this next line, I realize I repeat myself. Exercise is Medicine. Here’s why we need to embrace this right now: A single bout of exercise enhances your antibacterial and antiviral immunity.
If you’re wiping down shopping carts, wearing a mask and gloves, sheltering at home and your not exercising optimally? You are missing one of the most proactive ways to take charge of your health.
Turn Back the Clock for Your Immune System
Regular exercise reduces systemic inflammation and improves the immunity of older adults. It’s proven in research again and again. Older adult study subjects these days are doing more intense exercise and more aggressive protocols.
Yet, right now during COVID19 our most at risk populations are still “seniors” (forgive me, just the messenger, not my word), and the “elderly,” as well as young children and those with already compromised immune systems.
That does not mean you, or your parents, should not be active.
It also doesn’t mean you should reserve your exercise to “moderate” intensity. You can absolutely get breathless. You can lift weights to fatigue. Where you want to apply moderate is in the amount and duration of exercise. You should do LESS volume and do it more frequently.
“Moderate exercise” in relationship to immunity should define the amount of volume not the intensity of the exercise.
Imagine you’re an athlete. Right now your event is more a marathon than a sprint. You need to train for the long haul. That said you still need high intensity exercise. You want, however, to avoid overtraining. What is over training is unique to you. There are common denominators. I’ve listed them below/in the show notes. They are however relative to you.
What is “high volume” when it comes to interval training does have a cap on 45 minutes total a week based on studies looking at risk and reward, but your high volume right now may be a weekly amount of 25 minutes of HIIT.
What is “long duration” is also relative to you. Though at about 75-minutes the negative effects of cortisol begin to spike in the best of times, you may have less or greater endurance fitness right now. Your need for recovery too is unique to you.
What can deem exercise volume “overtraining:”
- High volume of high intensity interval training
- Long duration of exercise (any type)
- Absence of adequate recovery
Your Definition of Moderate Changes
Your ability to recover from exercise can influence what is “moderate.” Temperature changes, sleep disruption, fatigue, dehydration, and psychological stress negatively alter your ability to recover after exercise. So during this stressful time, allow yourself to alter your exercise. Don’t expect the same distance, speed, incline, or anything for that matter to have comparable results to 4 or 5 weeks ago.
Your level of anxiety prior to exercise and the level of physical stress during exercise together provide the total impact on your immune response. If you are a highly stressed worrier and you do an all-out exercise session that is both long, and hard, which are each independently known to require more recovery, you can cause more harm than good. Even if you do high intensity of short duration but don’t include adequate recovery you would be depleting your immune system.
High volume and prolonged duration of exercise have the biggest negative influence on immunity. Vigorous, or high intensity, exercise is still an advantage for supporting other concerns of the “now” we’re in as well your immune system.
You’re at home and proximity to food, particularly less than desirable comfort food, may be more tempting now than ever. The fat burning benefits of high intensity intervals currently could help prevent weight gain now being duped as the Quarantine15. Even elderly female subjects (average age 80) had better body composition and functional performance following high intensity interval training compared to moderate.
“Moderate” should not refer to intensity. It should refer to volume of exercise in relationship to rest and recovery.
What factors affect your ability to recover:
- Adequate micronutrient-dense calories
- Adequate protein
- Adequate rest (specific to muscle and tissue)
- Adequate sleep
- Ability to handle all sources of stress
Further, if you have prior existing nutrition deficiencies, stress, and anxiety, and sleep deprivation, you are susceptible to reduced immunity any time including adding a bout of exercise without proper initiation and progression for you.
You have to start and progress slowly, from where you are. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that each point here is relative to you and your overall health and fitness level. Even every woman in menopause has a unique hormonal response requiring you use the After 50 Fitness Formula for Women’s if this, then that blueprint rather than a one-exercise-fits-all approach.
Exercise and Chronic Disease
Do know that in the presence of cancer, arthritis, Parkinson’s, heart disease, COPD and over 80 other diseases one of the first parts of care management is exercise. The fine detail of your exercise prescription will be different than someone else’s. But there’s nearly no human condition existing where not exercising would be an advantage.
Menopause is certainly not a disease nor would I call it a condition. It’s just a phase of life like being a teenager was a phase of life. Just like the teen years go smoother for some than others so too can your menopause journey be better with exercise, as long as it’s the right exercise.
You cannot be healthy without exercise.
However, exercise has a set of rules required for it to be effective. One of those rules is you must have adequate recovery. Your body messages you all the time.
Signs you are not recovered:
- You could nap right after you exercise
- You can’t sleep at night though you’re exhausted
- You’re sore when you should do another workout
- You’re frequently sick (colds and flu more than once or twice a year)
- You crave foods (sugar or salt) OR have less appetite
- You’re injured frequently or chronically (more a long term than immediate message)
If you experience any of these performing your regular exercise routine (or prior to starting) don’t stop exercise completely. Do alter your routine to follow the #1 Flipping 50 creed: Restore Before More.
There are few simple ways to track your exercise and the way it’s affecting you:
- Track your active number of minutes a week. Categorize those minutes into low, moderate, and high intensity. Distribute your exercise most in the low and high intensity categories. Check the frequency of exercise to make sure you’re increasing that and not duration of fewer sessions.
- Track your sleep, appetite, cravings, and energy with a rating scale of 0-5.
- Make sure you’re not increasing your total volume of minutes more than 5% weekly. Make sure you’re allowing recovery between high intensity exercise interval training or keeping frequent sessions short and under 45 minutes total a week.
- Adjust accordingly if you see recovery ratings go down. Reduce volume of exercise before you reduce intensity.
- Vigorous exercise (such as interval training) enhances the immune system
- Frequent exercise enhances your immune system
- Regular and frequent exercise limits or delays aging of the immune system
- Exercise improves immune system across the lifespan
- It is high volume of any intensity of exercise, not the intensity of exercise that depletes the immune system