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How Getting Active Can Help Your Body Fight Off Illness

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man and woman doing seated side stretches at home

We learned during the pandemic that obesity and other chronic health problems are major risk factors for severe disease or death from COVID-19. The finding underscored a larger truth about how health and fitness play an important role in your ability to fight off viruses and illness.

Routine physical activity not only lowers risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, but it also improves immune function. That, in turn, helps reduce risk of certain illnesses such as upper respiratory infections.

UH physical therapist Stacy Ruffing says improving cardiorespiratory fitness – the capacity of the circulatory system and lungs to sustain large-muscle exercise for an extended period – is an excellent line of defense against illness. It’s much like “preconditioning” she helps patients with before knee replacement surgery. Exercising knees, hips and ankles to increase strength and flexibility helps patients have better surgical outcomes.

“The same concept applies to keeping our bodies well-equipped and well-prepared to fight an illness or virus that might come our way,” Ruffing says. “There is an important relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and health outcomes.”

Taking Charge

The good news is that you can take steps to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, Ruffing says. She suggests the following:

  • Get a fitness tracker and set a goal for daily steps.
  • Try to do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day.
  • Cardio-healthy exercises you can do at home include walking briskly around the house, stair climbing, jogging in place, dancing, jumping rope and playing active video games.
  • Multi-component exercising is best: cardio plus exercises to improve strength (push-ups, for example), balance and flexibility (yoga, tai chi).

The path to improved fitness also should include proper nutrition, sleep and water intake, she says.

“We can’t always control COVID 19 or other illnesses, but we can control modifiable factors, such as physical activity. That puts the ball in your court. It gives you the power to do something about it.”

It’s not known exactly how exercise increases immunities, but there are a number of theories.

Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. It may trigger changes to antibodies and white blood cells. It also could deter bacterial growth by raising body temperature, and tamp down stress hormones that are linked to increased risk of illness.

Related Links

The University Hospitals primary care sports medicine team comprises experienced physicians trained in the prevention and care of musculoskeletal issues, concussions and other health problems linked to sports injuries. Their non-surgical treatment approach addresses sports or activity-related injuries and illnesses as well as focuses on holistic care for the athlete. Learn more about primary care sports medicine at University Hospitals.

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