Many people live in fear of the seasonal flu, but a new study shows that there is one simple thing we could all do that could significantly cut our risk: vigorous exercise.
In an analysis of data collected from more than 4,800 respondents to an online national flu study called Flusurvey, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have been able to shed light on what happened during the UK’s 2013 flu season. In so doing, they’ve stumbled on some interesting tidbits of information.
For instance, last year’s flu season appears to have been relatively mild when compared to 2012, with only 4.7% of respondents reporting flu symptoms compared to 6% the previous year. The divide was even larger among children, with only 5% of kids having had flu symptoms over 8% the previous year.
These are only preliminary findings as the research is still ongoing but among respondents a key trend began to emerge. Those who reported having participating in vigorous exercise — classed as doing at least 2.5 hours a week of activity that leads to perspiration and/or moderate breathlessness — appear be as much as 10% less likely to develop flu symptoms than their counterparts. However, the research showed that moderate exercises, like walking briskly, weren’t enough. Jogging without perspiration or breathlessness also didn’t appear to have any impact on the likelihood of developing flu symptoms.
It’s important to stress that this research is still preliminary, but the findings are being treated as significant.
Dr. Alma Adler, who is a co-researcher in this endeavor and a fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is quoted as saying: “We’re really interested in the preliminary findings around fitness activity and flu-like illness, as exercise is something that everyone can do to reduce your chance of having flu. We need to treat this result cautiously as these are preliminary findings, however they are consistent with findings for other conditions and really show the health benefits of exercise. Although many people have dodged the flu bullet this winter, flu can occur at any time, so taking advantage of the better weather is a great opportunity to get out and get fit to ward off flu this spring.”
Exercises that were shown to produce the desired “vigorous” effect were running, cycling and and team sports that require a lot of aerobic activity like rugby and possibly soccer. Though intensity remains a topic of debate, the benefits of cycling and running have previously been documented, and there is some research to say that these activities when they are a life-long habit can boost overall life expectancy by at least five or so years.
That said, the preliminary data in this latest study can’t identify why it is that vigorous exercise should decrease the chances of contracting flu. We can speculate that challenging exercise might keep our immune systems in top condition, meaning our bodies are better able to resist flu when we do come into contact with the virus. The study has so far been unable to find any predictor of flu resistance for moderate activity, but as we’ve heard time and again it seems that mostly any exercise is better than none whatsoever, so keep doing whatever is within your capability and at the very least you are like to improve your overall health.
This study comes in the same week as a separate piece of research appears to show that under a quarter of people who actually contract flu ever show symptoms. The research, conducted by scientists at the University College London and published in the journal Lancet Respiratory Medicine Journal, found that while some people will display moderate to severe symptoms, they are in the minority as most people would never think of telling their doctor about their symptoms and around 70% of people would display virtually no “flu-like” symptoms at all.
This serves to underscore two points. It reinforces that national data is under-representative because flu symptoms can be so different for so many people, and secondly it serves to illustrate just how important it is to take steps to prevent the spread of influenza.
What kind of steps? Well, it can mean ensuring we take regular vigorous exercise outside of the traditional flu season, but also ensuring that we get vaccinated if that is what is recommended by our doctors. This is doubly important because, clearly, we may feel fine and symptom free — but that doesn’t mean we can’t infect other people with a virus that for them could be much more serious and potentially damaging.
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