Exercise boosts immune system, helps protect from COVID-19

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With the current public health crisis, we are all looking for products to help boost our immune systems and ward off COVID-19. The stores are running out of vitamin C, zinc, black elderberry and other immune boosting vitamins.

But what about exercise? Can it help boost our body's natural defense?

The answer is "Yes, exercise is great medicine!" Here's how it helps:

• Improved sleep. Sleep is when our body recovers. Poor sleep habits can weaken your immune system's ability to fight against an infection or illness. Regular exercise helps to increase the time spent in deep sleep, which is the most restorative sleep phase.

• Decrease stress. Exercise slows the release of some stress hormones and releases mood boosting hormones. Slowing the stress hormone release may be helpful in preventing illness by reducing the stress your body feels, which can weaken your immune system.

• Changes in white blood cells. The body's immune system relies on our white blood cells (WBC) to help fight infection. Exercise helps to circulate WBCs more rapidly. Thus, they may detect illness earlier, allowing them to start fighting infection sooner.

Exercise also causes a brief rise in body temperature, which might help prevent bacteria from growing and aid in fighting an infection (much like a fever).

• Helps "clean" the respiratory tract. Exercise might help to clean the bacteria out of the lungs and airways by increasing the breathing rate and circulation, reducing your risk of getting sick.

This time of year, exercising outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air can be a healthy way to both build up your immune system and practice social distancing. But as summer temperatures rise, be sure to take precautions in the heat, and drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated.

While we know how exercise helps boost immunity, like most things in life, moderation is key. More exercise or more high intensity exercise doesn't provide more benefits; in some cases, it can overstress the body and weaken your immune system.

A good workout plan should include three to five days of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise and two to three days of strength training. Don't forget to incorporate yoga or mind-body exercise work to improve flexibility and aid in stress relief.

Kim Yawn, M.S., is director of LifeFit Wellness Services at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

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