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Running bold through the common cold

Sneezing, coughing and wheezing combined with crumpled up tissues, and the most foul-tasting exotic cold and flu remedies you’ve ever tasted. Yes, it’s that time of year again where all these things form part of everyday scenery in households across the globe. Winter is upon us, and with the change of season, so many of us also experience a change in health, unfortunately.

For those with arthritic pain or some other discomfort to endure through the cold of winter, getting sick is the last thing they need. From a sore throat and stuffy nose to muscle aches, headaches, fever and fatigue, when a cold strikes it can render people incapacitated. A lot of cold symptoms are actually caused by the natural defences thrown up by our body in its attempt to combat the virus. Once inhaled, the cold virus can begin to wreak havoc in our system within hours. Depending on the severity of the infection, the affliction may last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.

The average adult will get sick two to three times per year. Year after year we endure cold and flu symptoms ranging from the plain irritating to the downright severe. We’ve put men on the moon, developed computers that can do the unthinkable, and can split atoms, but a cure for the common cold still eludes scientists, just as it has since the beginning of time. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The human body has a fantastic capacity to defend itself against nature’s most ruthless microscopic villains.

So what is our best line of defence in this age-old war against the common cold? We need to support the body’s natural immune system. The truth is that with a healthy immunity, the cold virus doesn’t stand a chance, even once inhaled. In top condition, your body will deal with infections entering your system as quickly and efficiently as Steven Seagal working the door at your favourite night club.

A healthy balanced diet will ensure you are taking in all the nutrients needed to support your body’s natural defences. Over and above healthy nutritional practice, regular consistent exercise has proven to be the heavyweight champion of anti-cold and flu immunity support.

The link between moderate, consistent exercise and a strong immune system has long been investigated, and researchers in the US have offered some interesting figures from one such study. Those who walked everyday at an intensity of between 70 and 75 per cent of their maximum heart rates had half as many sick days as those who did not.

To establish this intensity, you can use the talk/sing test while you walk. If you are walking so fast that you can no longer hold a conversation, then your heart rate is most likely higher than this bracket, and you can slow down. If, however, you are walking slow enough to be able to sing, then your heart rate is too low, and you should speed up.

Avoid treading the fine line between doing it and overdoing it. Any sensible exercise programme should incorporate adequate rest and recovery. Intense exercise is a relatively traumatic stimulus for the body, which must adapt to better meet that stress if repeated in the near future. It adapts by recovering, and then overcompensating.

Exercising too intensely and too often will interrupt the recovery and overcompensation processes, leaving the body in a depleted state, and immune system in tatters. Evidence has also suggested psychological stress to be another major culprit threatening our immune system. The stress relief value of exercise alone should therefore be enough of an incentive to get you heading down to the gym this winter.

The higher incidence of colds in winter is thought to be dependent not so much on the temperature outside, but more on the fact that we spend more time indoors in humid environments and in contact with others. We are far more likely to pick up infections in crowded places where we come into close proximity with others than we are by standing outside in the cold. The gym is one such place, so beware.

The cold virus is inhaled through the nose and mouth, but the most common way to pick it up is via the hands. So keep your hands clean and avoid placing them near your face.

So you are eating healthy, exercising, and watching out for germs at the gym, but you still get KO’d by a nasty cold. Do you hang up your gym towel and mope about at home or tough it out on the treadmill? When it comes to training while sick, most experts agree that a distinction should be made between symptoms occurring above or below the neck.

If your symptoms are above the neck, and you still feel like hitting the gym, by all means proceed with a light to moderate workout. However, if your symptoms also occur below the neck and you feel generally run-down, stay home and rest. Your body must dedicate its valuable resources towards the priority of fighting the infection and making you healthy again. Bigger biceps or a firmer butt should certainly take a back seat at this time.

Remember; always stay well hydrated, as dehydration reduces your resistance to harmful bacteria. The hours immediately following a workout are the perfect window of opportunity for the cold virus to strike. So after your workout always keep warm, drink plenty of water, and get a nutritious meal inside you as soon as possible.

Source: The Sunday Times, November 2, 2008

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