A widely held belief is that prolonged intense workouts, such as endurance races, compromise the immune system. While evidence suggests that may be the case, it also suggests that a regular routine of moderate exercise, cycling in particular, seems to have an especially positive effect on overall health and wellbeing, with the immune system being no exception.
With certain restrictions in place across the country, it makes sense that one would be uneasy about continuing an outdoor training routine. If you live in a highly congested area where finding an open space that you can enjoy by yourself is a challenge or even an impossibility, then you might have to make a erious adjustment to your training schedule to make it work safely. However, if you live in a place where there’s an abundance of parks, preserves, and other open space areas, then with the right safety measures, there’s little reason to be alarmed; the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is spread by people, so just being away from people dramatically reduces your risk of infection.
Most common questions
Before heading out for a much-needed training session, take some time to learn about ways you can best protect yourself and others.
Will training put my immune system at risk? MAYBE.
Whether or not your immune system is compromised will depend on a myriad of factors, including nutrition, sleeping habits, stress, preexisting health conditions, and how COVID-19 precautions are implemented. How one approaches training can also affect the immune system, depending on physical exertion levels. There are plenty of ways to give the immune system a boost, several of which are as simple as changing a few habits.
While moderate exercise is beneficial to your immune system, seriously intense workouts that are also long in duration can hardly be considered “moderate exercise.” For a better understanding of what is considered “moderate exercise,” the Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers suggestions, which include “walking at a moderate or brisk pace of 3 to 4.5 mph on a level surface,” “bicycling 5 to 9 mph, level terrain or with few hills” or “stationary bicycling - using moderate effort,” a variety of dancing, and water aerobics. When beginning a new physical activity, particularly if you haven’t exercised in some time, it’s important to start slow in an effort to build strength, endurance, and tolerance; speed, weight, repetitions - whatever the unit of measurement - can and should be increased over time so as to avoid overstressing the body and immune system. For seasoned athletes, the above suggestions would hardly make sense; It would be best to use perceived effort to measure the level of activity. Conversational pace, the level of effort at which the athlete can hold a conversation, coincides with heart rate zone 2. Exercising in this zone is known as “base building” and is generally considered very safe on the joints and excellent for the cardiovascular system.
How do exercise and training affect my immune system? DEPENDS.
A moderate exercise or training program is associated with better heart health, weight loss, enhanced physiological function, and overall improved immunity. However, it seems that riding a bicycle could reap a lot of advantages that other forms of exercise might not, such as being low impact, having anti aging effects, and even promoting good mental health.
The most profound effects of riding a bicycle can best be illustrated by the results of a study in the UK, which ultimately suggests that cycling can have a cellular-level effect on the body. The study involved a small sample size of 125 cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79 whose blood draws were compared to two groups: other adults within the same age group who did not exercise regularly and adults between the ages of 20 and 26. The side by side bloodwork comparisons might even suggest that maintaining a certain level of physical fitness can have an anti aging effect on the body:
The body fat of the cyclists (aged between 55 and 79) was as low as those in their 20s. Individuals with higher body fat levels are associated with an increased risk of developing certain health conditions and illnesses, some of which can result in a compromised immune system.
The size of cyclists’ thymus glands was consistent with the size of thymus glands of those in their 20s. It’s not uncommon for the thymus gland, an organ that plays an important function both in the immune system and endocrine system, to begin shrinking as one reaches their 20s. Interestingly, the sizes of the cyclists’ thymus glands were consistent in the thymus gland sizes in 20 year olds. These findings are relevant because the thymus gland serves a critical role in the development of t-cells.
The immune system’s functionality and t-cell count levels of the cyclists were the same as those in their 20s. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that defends the body against potentially deadly pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and a key factor in having a strong immune system.
Is it a good idea to be training right now? YES.
As long as you’re willing to make the necessary adjustments to your training routine and do not reside in a place where restrictions prohibit you from riding your bike outside, training outside is a wonderful way to give your body and mind what it needs: fresh air, physical activity, and an opportunity to see something that exists beyond your property lines.
Nearly anyone can benefit from the effects of a good bike ride, but research shows that there are certain people who find riding to be especially advantageous: men, individuals who are coping with certain mental health conditions, and those who suffer from significant amounts of stress. The psychological effects of life during a pandemic, including the daily practice of social distancing, can be stressful for everyone - even the coolest cucumber of the bunch. For those who consider themselves social butterflies and thrive on the presence of others, anxiety and depression could set in or be magnified for people who are already affected by some form of mental illness.
One notable study published in the Lancet suggests that bicycling might be the most common of stress-reducing exercises. The data used to make this determination includes responses regarding health and exercise experiences of over one million US residing participants, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavior Risk Factors Surveillance System Surveys (‘11, ‘13, ‘15). Data indicated that bicycle riding ranked above another other aerobic activity, coming in second overall to team sports involvement by only 0.7 percent, suggesting that a bike ride could be one of the best ways to help combat any lockdown anxiety and give your immune system a boost.
Should I adjust my training? YES.
If you’ve been preparing for a race, then you already know that this season’s races have been postponed or cancelled; this is more than enough reason to adjust your training. Rather than pushing full steam ahead, you should be lightening your load. While it’s very possible to train safely during a pandemic, it’s not safe to subject your body to exercise that’s both high intensity and prolonged duration because such overexertions can negatively affect immunity. Since the race season has at best been postponed, but likely cancelled, there’s no reason for you to be training as though you have an upcoming race. If you had a slow start and are just beginning, then you likely don’t have to pull back. For those who are unsure of how to proceed with training or want some professional guidance, don’t hesitate to seek the advice of a coach; these days, most coaches offer their services online.
With no particular race to peak for, it makes sense for most endurance athletes to focus on maintaining the existing fitness, focusing on a limiting aspect of their performance, or maybe even going back to building more base. Numerous maintenance plans are available from reputable coaches, if you look long enough, you’re bound to find one that jives with your training philosophy.
You’re only as safe as your decisions; it’s imperative that you take certain safety measures to mitigate the chances of contracting COVID-19. Thankfully, most of the following suggestions are straight-forward, easy (in theory), and common sense. Even though the Coronavirus is transferred by person-to-person contact, there are some key differences that everyone should know; these differences are what make this particular virus so contagious.
Keep your distance
Social distancing and stay-home orders are the two most significant and effective ways to limit personal risk of exposure; the chances of becoming an asymptomatic carrier who accidentally infects loved ones with health conditions and compromised immune systems is also tremendously reduced. Wherever your training takes you, be sure you maintain a minimum distance of six feet from others. When riding a bike, this distance must be much larger as a moving rider has a notably greater respiratory signature, the volume of air that gets polluted by the exhaled air. Group rides or that epic ride you planned with your best friend should be put on hold for now, too; by taking proper precautions now, you increase the chance of enjoying these postponed events as soon as we overcome this difficult time.
Hygiene still matters
Even though it’s uncommon for cyclists to make physical contact with others, it’s still worth mentioning that hygiene should remain of the utmost importance. Germs, bacteria, and viral spores cannot be seen with the naked eye, so one really can’t be too cautious; some simple hygienic measures might prove to be life-saving.
The CDC and other leading research centers continue to remind the global public about some basic hygienic practices that can help deter the spread of the virus, including frequent handwashing. Keep your hands clean through the use of hand sanitizing gel or wipes and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and face. You would be surprised how often you touch your face while riding, until you try not to do it. When you get home, remove your soiled clothes outside and shower immediately using soap and warm water. Simply washing with water is not as effective because it lacks the ingredients found in everyday hand soap, which are responsible for breaking the virus down on a molecular level. The chemical properties of soap facilitate a reaction when it is introduced to both water and viral spores, it can be compared to washing a greasy pan with dish detergent; attempting to wash use only cold water to wash the same greasy pan would not get the job done, just as it would not suffice in destroying a virus. The biggest concern should be keeping harmful germs out of your home and killing any that could have made it in.
Be health conscious
Being on a restricted movement order has obvious downsides that fall on a spectrum of mildly inconvenient to detrimental. The situation itself cannot be changed, but how each person handles it is a matter that’s unique to each individual. It’s easy to feel “stuck” or “confined,” but more time at home could provide you with the time you’ve been waiting for to assess how your daily habits might be affecting your health so that you can make necessary adjustments.
Exercise. The fact that exercise promotes good health is no secret, but it can be easy to forget about the importance of staying active when trying to stay sane during a global pandemic. Hunkering down on the couch to binge watch cult classics all day might seem like a simple solution to never ending boredom, but summoning the will to get up and do some exercise will be a battle worth fighting; exercise benefits the body and mind, both of which need some TLC right now. Whether you’re able to exercise outside safely or confined to your home, make physical activity a priority.
Mother Nature’s gifts. Researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, Richard Ryan, says it best: “Nature is fuel for the soul. Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.” Studies repeatedly suggest that spending time outdoors has a profoundly positive effect on the human body in several ways, including physical, biological, and psychological. Regularly enjoying fresh air and sunshine has been linked to improved digestion, blood pressure, and a stronger immune system. Also associated with spending time outdoors is improved lung function, a sharper mind, and overall better emotional health. If you’re able to enjoy the great outdoors while implementing necessary COVID-19 safety precautions, then do so; your body and mind will thank you.
Nutrition. Being aware of what’s being consumed, both food and beverages, is also important; a diet insufficient in vitamins, nutrients, and fluids and an overindulgence in junk foods and beverages that have been linked to inflammatory diseases, obesity, and other health conditions that do not promote a strong immune system or overall good health, physical nor mental.
Sleep. Studies that examine the correlation between sleep and health indicate that the quality and quantity of sleep one experiences has a direct affect on the body’s overall functioning, but especially on that of the immune system. When the body doesn’t get enough sleep, the immune functionality becomes compromised because it doesn’t have the time needed to regenerate and heal on a cellular level. Insufficient sleep can not only make one more susceptible to illness or prolong recovery time, but a long-term lack of sleep can even lead to various health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. If you’re someone who struggles to get enough sleep, then consider consciously establishing a sleeping schedule to help you start sleeping right and to promote a healthier future.
Other health conditions. Experts have observed that certain health conditions can make someone more susceptible to experiencing more serious symptoms and life-threatening complications related to the Coronavirus; these complications are commonly referred to as severe COVID-19 disease. Preexisting risk factors that can affect one’s susceptibility to contract or ability to overcome the virus include diabetes (mellitus), chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, chronic renal disease, and hypertension. It’s imperative to be honest with oneself when making considerations regarding one’s overall health and immunity, particularly when dealing with a virus that’s so easily transferable between people and with an incubation period of over two weeks in some cases.
Take it easy.
With the racing season essentially cancelled, there’s really no reason to push your limit during training; overstressing the body with intense, prolonged workouts can compromise your immune system. Listen to your body and give it what it needs: a break, cross training, or maybe strength training. In fact, a solid cross training routine can prove to be beneficial in multiple ways: helps prevent injury, promotes recovery, and improves overall fitness. Rather than focusing on the intensity of your workout, try shifting the priority to increasing physical fitness on a full body scale.
Avoid unnecessary risks.
Be safe. Don’t take unnecessary risks, such as unnecessary jumps or riding at higher than average speeds; while exhilarating, these choices could result in an injurious crash. Many bike crashes are preventable, as are the resulting injuries. It’s never fun to get injured and wind up at the doctor’s office or hospital, but during a time when there’s already a concern that hospitals could be overextended due to an easily transferable illness, it’s best to ride it safe. Protect yourself and others by making responsible decisions that will keep you out of medical facilities.
During tough times, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters most - our personal health and safety, as well as the health and safety of others, whether they’re loved ones or complete strangers. Our daily lives might be vastly different than they were just a few months ago, this too shall pass. Remember - knowledge is only half the battle - so it’s imperative that we act responsibly, too. If everyone works together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by staying informed and implementing expert-recommended safety measures, it will pass sooner than later and you’ll be back to rides with your buddies before you know it.