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How to turn physical exercise into an ally against the flu

Leisure time could play a crucial role in our health, especially when it comes to dealing with seasonal threats like the flu and pneumonia

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Working out in moderation can help keep respiratory diseases at bay.supersizer (Getty Images)
Nuria Garatachea

Our free time can play a vital role in defending against winter threats. Physical activity and exercise, in particular, can become our best ally in dealing with the flu and pneumonia. The intersection between physical activity and the prevention of respiratory diseases is an area of study that is increasingly relevant to public health. In this article, we will explore the emerging links between levels of leisure-time physical activity, and how these practices may influence the body’s resistance against influenza and pneumonia. We will unravel the science behind this connection and provide an accessible perspective on how we can improve our health through conscious choices in our leisure time. In a world where prevention is becoming increasingly valuable, it is essential to understand how our daily actions can become effective defenses against airborne infectious diseases.

Until now, it was known that people who met the two minimum recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) — that is, aerobic physical activity equal to or greater than 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity and at least two days of muscle strengthening — had half the risk of death from flu and pneumonia than those who did not meet any of the recommendations. But this year, data from a very interesting study have been published. It involves more than half a million men and women over 18 years of age who were followed for nine years. This research brings good news, especially for those who are more inactive. It turns out that aerobic physical activity is related to a lower risk of flu and pneumonia, even with lower amounts of exercise than those recommended by the WHO. Compared with no physical activity at all, doing 10–149, 150–300, 301–600, and or more than 600 minutes of physical activity per week was associated with a 21%, 41%, 50%, and 41% decrease in risk, respectively. An important clinical implication in terms of public health is derived from these results: the benefit associated with reduced mortality, even in people who do not do sufficient aerobic physical activity. This in itself is an important reason to increase physical activity levels in the most inactive people and patients.

As the WHO promotes when we talk about physical exercise: something is better than nothing. But also look at the data from this study: the maximum mortality risk reduction occurred in the range of 301 to 600 minutes per week, with a 50% risk decrease. However, for those people who do more than 600 minutes a week, the risk reduction was not greater, but rather less, standing at 41%. Therefore, it follows from these data that there is an optimal dose of exercise. If you’re in the range of 301 to 600 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, you’ll be well on your way from the flu. But if you do less than what is recommended by the WHO, you will also be avoiding the flu, although to a lesser extent.

If we pay attention to the strength recommendations, people who did two muscle-strengthening sessions had a 47% lower risk of mortality from flu and pneumonia compared to those who reported more than two sessions per week. However, a red flag should also be raised for people who do at least seven weekly muscle-strengthening sessions, since the risk of mortality increases up to 40%. Therefore, we must pay attention to the appropriate amount of strength training so as not to go to the other extreme and increase the risk. In our quest for resistance against flu and pneumonia, let us always remember that the poison is in the dose. As in any dance, the melody of health is composed with calculated and balanced movements. Too much inactivity can leave us vulnerable, while too much activity can deplete our defenses. The key lies in finding that delicate balance, where the body is strengthened without losing its natural harmony. Let us always remember that the key to health lies in the virtue of balance.

Regular physical activity can also improve the immune response to vaccination. In a recent meta-analysis, regular aerobic physical activity was positively correlated with antibodies after influenza vaccination, but not with pneumococcal vaccination.

Although we have focused on mortality from influenza and pneumonia, the pathophysiological principles underlying physical exercise could also be applicable to Covid and other infectious respiratory diseases. A review of 25 studies concluded that physical inactivity is an independent risk factor for Covid. It is concluded that inactive people have more than twice the chance of hospitalization and death than those who complete at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.

In conclusion, it is important to challenge the winter with a healthy attitude, and for the winter season finds us in top shape.

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