by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS, Coordinator of Fitness Programs, Drexel University Department of Athletics
With much of the globe gripped by panic concerning Ebola, I have been receiving a number of questions regarding keeping healthy as the colder weather and accompanying cold and flu season approach.
While Ebola antidotes reportedly exist, many of them have not yet made it to the clinical trial stage. In response to the fears of a globally paralyzing pandemic, government agencies and public health experts have purported that the likelihood of catching Ebola remains rather remote. While their suppositions remain up for contention, the threat of falling victim to colds and flus during the colder portions of the year constantly looms.
As the weather grows crisp, the masses, especially those leading active lifestyles retire to temperature controlled environments to continue activities or to resume exercise. For those living in parts of the country above 30 degrees latitude, you’ll notice runners disappearing from trails and sidewalks and fewer events scheduled outdoors. Save for fall sport playoffs and obligatory yard work, most people spend their time indoors, often in close proximity with others, giving rise to the proliferation of illness- causing pathogens.
The body innately responds to threats, whether actual or perceived. In the case of an actual threat, such as the body coming in contact with a foreign antigen, or protein containing a virus or bacteria, the body’s immune system recognizes the threat and responds to it.
Lymphatic structures with the body, which prominently include the spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, and bone marrow, collectively secrete and subsequently deploy a combination of antibodies as well as, lympochytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, natural killer cells, B cells, T cells, and phagocytes to the external threat. Some of these constituents may be of familiarity, since they are also involved in the response of exercise, a deliberate stressor and incite an inflammatory response. Our survival hinges on the functioning of the immune system and the mechanisms it employs, which in addition to triggering an inflammatory response, also comprises attaching to, combating, and dissolving the foreign body.
However, external threats can be magnified if a person does not ascribe to sound nutritional, hygienic, sanitary, and stress management practices, which involve balancing stimulus and recovery.
Poor diets, particularly those consisting of trans fats and excessive saturated fats, may goad systemic inflammation, thus impeding immune system functioning. More inflammation equates to a less efficient immune system. Excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates weakens gut health, which cannot be overlooked, since the digestive tract is heavily lined with antibody-producing lymphatic tissue.
Poor hygiene and sanitary practices elevate susceptibility to illness causing pathogens.
An imbalance between imposed stress and recovery, whether the origin of stress is physiological or psychological, may also degrade immune system functioning.
If avoiding the common cold or preventing the transmission of the yearly flu are goals, the following guidelines, rooted in common sense, should be helpful.
Immediate Preventative Measures
- Cleanse hands frequently throughout the day, preferably with antibacterial soap and warm water. Alcohol based hand sanitizers will also suffice. For those suffering from dermatological issues, such as dry skin, many antibacterial soaps and alcohol based hand sanitizers are infused with moisturizing solutions.
- Disinfect equipment and surfaces prior to and following use.
- Equipment and surfaces which appear to be covered in bodily fluids should also be cleaned and if this is observed at a public or corporate owned facility, specific laws and procedures involving health and safety must be adhered to. As such, staff members should be notified immediately.
- Those working with the public in a non-essential capacity, such as a personal trainer, should advise customers, or clients, to refrain from meeting with them if they are ill.
- Avoid touching face, including eyes, nose, mouth, and ears throughout the day and use facial tissues when coughing or sneezing. Soiled facial tissues should be disposed of immediately following use, and if available, soap and/or sanitizer should be used to cleanse the hands or area of the body producing or making contact with bodily fluids.
Longer-term Preventative Measures
- Individuals should view exercise as a stressor and should adjust their training accordingly, if they are juggling competing demands, both physiologically and psychologically based. Progressions in exercise intensity and volume should be gradual. Those partaking in activities involving endurance training are at an increased risk of respiratory illnesses and should be especially mindful of their volume.
- If an individual is not exercising, they should strongly consider commencing an exercise program, as exercise, more broadly, physical activity has been linked to hastening the turnover of illnesses that the body comes in contact with by way of streamlining digestive, urinary, and cooling mechanisms of the body. Long term exercise also boosts the release of antibodies and triggers a greater release of white blood cells from the spleen. Also, the thermogenic environment created by exercise may blunt bacterial growth, similar to a the effects of a fever.
Immediate Supportive Measures
- If stricken with an illness, including a bacteria or virus, it is advisable that medical attention be sought.
- Exercise should be avoided if symptoms include: headache, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding
- Exercise intensity and volume should be significantly reduced, at least initially, if cold-like symptoms including runny nose, coughing, and profuse sweating are experienced.
- Symptomatic individuals should avoid traversing public places or areas populated by many people, if possible.
- Since activity is reduced, so should energy intake, especially those containing simple, sugary carbohydrates, which are often utilized to fuel intense, glycolytically dependent exercise.
- Consumption of foodstuffs and beverages containing antioxidants, minerals (zinc), and vitamins (B and C), as well Echinacea may support the immune system in fighting off illnesses.