There is a lot of talk lately about how to protect yourself from germs. Certainly washing your hands and staying away from people who are sick is at the top of the list. The irony however is that all this talk about preventing illness is causing a lot of stress and anxiety, putting the body in a state that is lowering defenses against the illnesses we are concerned about. Exercise, when used correctly, is the antidote to the stress response. It puts your body back in a state where it can defend against illnesses.
When you are in a stress response, your body makes changes to protect you from immediate danger. It down-regulates the not so urgent work, such as digestion, repair and healing, and puts energy into getting ready to take care of the ‘threat’. The way we are hardwired to defend against stress is to move, in order to fight or flee the problem. All the things that happen in your body when you are stressed is to prepare you to move so you can fight or run away from the ‘threat’. Basically, when you are stressed your body puts less effort into defending against illness and more effort into preparing to move. Do you see the problem with this stress response in our modern day life?
Because most of our stressors are not helped by fighting or fleeing, and we have many constant underlying stressors, we can be in a chronic state of ‘ready to move’, rather than ready to defend against illness. We only add to that when it is stressful to get enough exercise, or we make exercise more stressful than it needs to be.
Several studies show that you only need to do moderate intensity exercise, five days a week for about 20 minutes to enjoy a 40% reduction in upper respiratory infections. (This is even after they adjusted for factors such as age, marital status, gender, body mass index (BMI), and perceived mental stress.)
To use exercise correctly in order to help your immune system stay strong:
- Listen to your body. Do the amount, type and intensity that is just right for your body. When exercise is exhaustive, it can actually lower immune system function. If exercise makes you feel better mentally and physically, (and not just because it is ‘over with’) you know you have found the right level.
- Be consistent. Something done regularly is much better than a large amount of exercise done once in a while. That’s because the way exercise strengthens your immune system lasts for about a day and improves as fitness levels improve.
- Make it stress reducing. You would not go for a pedicure or out for an expensive dinner with the mindset you just need to ‘get through it’, would you? Treat your exercise time like you would any other self-care activity. When you set it up to be a treat, and your stress level is most likely to dissolve as you restore a relaxed state where your immune system can do its job.
Regular exercise is an important strategy for each of us, especially now. How you exercise makes all the difference in how well it reduces stress so your immune system can help you stay healthy and well.
Keep Moving, Be Well,