Have a case of the sniffles? Your workouts may be to blame. Though moderate exercise can bolster a person’s immune system, intense or prolonged efforts can have the opposite effect. When training volume increases, many triathletes find they are more susceptible to illness.
“High physiologic and mental stress are associated with an increased incidence of acute respiratory illness,” says Dr. David Nieman, Professor and Director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University. “That stress is associated with immune dysfunction.”
Sleep disruption, overtraining, high mental stress, poor diet, and lax hygiene practices can contribute to a weakened immune system, knocking even the strongest athletes into bed with illness. Bulletproof your immune system with these expert tips.
A good diet can keep illness at bay, even when immunity is low.
“In our research, we have shown that the single most important dietary habit to prevent illness is eating at least three servings of fruit each day,” says Dr. Nieman. “Fruit contains high levels of flavonoid that exert anti-pathogenic influences.”
As a general rule of thumb, more colorful fruits tend to pack the biggest nutritional punch. Look for purple, blue, red and orange hues in the produce section of the supermarket, and eat fruits in their natural, raw state (in other words, blueberries are great—blueberry pie, not so much).
Vegetables are also of importance, with greens topping the list. In a study published in the journal Nature Immunology, cruciferous greens such as broccoli and kale help the body produce immune cells that protect the body from infection.
Frequent hand washing is the most important and least expensive component of illness prevention, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Lather well with soap and rub vigorously for 20 seconds before rinsing.
Alcohol-based sanitizers, which don’t require water, are an acceptable alternative to soap-and-water hand washing, so long as the product contains a high percentage of alcohol (experts suggest an alcohol content of at least 60 percent).
As an extra precaution, strive to keep fingers away from the body’s most vulnerable entry points for bacteria and viruses: the eyes, nose and mouth.
Keep It Clean
Though hand washing can kill almost all germs, your hands begin to collect them again immediately after you rinse. Almost every surface is covered with germs, from your cell phone’s touch screen to your car steering wheel. A study in the Journal of Medical Virology reports that cold and flu viruses can survive for 18 hours on hard surfaces. Transmission is easy—all it takes is one wipe of your brow after lifting weights at the gym, or digging into an appetizer with your fingers after putting down a restaurant menu.
Routinely clean your home with an antibacterial spray, such as Lysol or a bleach-water mixture. If you are able to wipe down public surfaces with a disinfectant before touching (for example, most grocery stores provide antibacterial wipes for their carts, and gyms frequently provide cleaners for their equipment), do so.
Train Smart, Not Hard
While exercise sometimes has a gradual, cumulative effect on lowering immunity, it’s usually one intense event that puts an athlete at greatest risk. The 72 hours after a hard workout or competition are when athletes are most susceptible to illness and infection. To allow the body to recover and restore immunity levels, Nieman suggests triathletes mix in rest and low-volume training days between hard workouts.
Don’t Wait to Vaccinate
“Flu season” in the United States typically begins as early as October and ends in May. Even in seemingly healthy adults, complications from the influenza (flu) virus can be deadly. Getting a vaccination each year can reduce the chances you will become infected with the flu.
Because it takes about two weeks post-vaccination for antibodies to develop, the Centers for Disease Control urge people to vaccinate early in the season, rather than waiting until an influenza outbreak hits. Influenza vaccines are available at many locations, including doctor’s offices, pharmacies, health clinics, and even some workplaces. The vaccine can be given as an injection or in the form of a nasal spray. If you are moderately or severely ill, wait until you’ve recovered before getting vaccinated.
Get Your Z’s
It can be difficult to find enough hours in a day to balance work, training and family obligations. For the time-crunched triathlete, sleep is usually the first thing that is sacrificed—but even cutting out an hour of snooze time each night can have detrimental effects. In a 2012 study published in the research journal SLEEP, adults who got less than seven hours of sleep per night were more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus; they also had a harder time recovering. Make sleep a priority by scheduling your bedtime and wake-up alarm, just as you would any other important appointment—and shoot for seven to eight hours of quality sleep per night.
Know Your “Red Flags”
Listen to your body. Though every athlete is different, almost all have “red flags” signaling when physiologic and mental stressors are taking a toll on the body. Nieman says common signs of weakened immune systems are undue fatigue, high resting heart rate and a lack of desire to train.
When athletes notice their “red flags,” they should scale back on training for a day or two to allow the body to recover and immunity to be restored. Additionally, extra preventive measures may be needed during this time, such as limiting exposure to ill people and avoiding high-risk areas.
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