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Exercise Vs. Maladies: The Series Continues (Updated below the fold)

I had originally planned on part two of my maladies series to go in a different direction but I’ve been struck by an interesting set of circumstances that has made a different path pertinent. In part one, I looked at the use of exercise as a tool in aiding recovery from alcoholism and as a matter of guilt by association, drug addiction.  It can be found here and is a particularly nasty malady that affects a large minority of the population – if you adjust for collateral damage which is normally horrendous.

In this installment, I’ll look at something a little less damaging.  We’ve all experienced the common cold or flu – if you have kids in school, as I do, then you experience a smorgasbord of untimely and ugly bugs being imported into the home.  In fact, my family is currently dealing with a particular nasty little sinus infection – God only knows where it came from.  It is affecting our family in a very interesting, different and telling way though.  My wife has been clobbered by it (though she has not been sidelined) but should be turning the corner in the next day or two.  My kids had it weeks ago (or possibly a different bug?).  I have shown signs as well over the last few days as well, but there’s one difference – I only have two symptoms, a runny nose (at times) and one red eye that has faded to a lovely shade of pink just in time for Valentine’s day.  Before you head straight to the comments section or jump to conclusions, it’s not pink-eye.  Pink-eye usually doesn’t clear up on its own, it travels from one eye to the other (and family member to family member), and there are a list of other symptoms that I don’t have that come with it.*

With that said, I am currently the workout nut in the family.  My wife and daughters are active, yes, but they’re nowhere near the level that I’m at.  So, the question is, does my fitness play a role in the fact that I don’t get sick like most people.  There is an overwhelming amount of scientific data that suggests this is the case.

Take this ABC News story on upper respiratory tract infections (ahem):

“During a 12-week period, people who said they exercised at least five days a week had 43 percent fewer days with an upper respiratory tract infection than those who exercised no more than one day a week, according to David Nieman, a researcher at Appalachian State University in Kannapolis, N.C., and colleagues.

Similarly, those who rated themselves as highly fit had 46 percent fewer days with a respiratory infection than those who reported low fitness, the researchers reported online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine“.

Or this story from MSNBC on the same study (I can’t believe I’m actually linking an MSNBC story, somebody write this day down in your calendar):

“Nieman and his colleagues found exercising stimulates the movement of immune cells throughout the body about three hours after a workout. The more often a person exercises, the more often their immune cells will be on high-alert for invading pathogens”.

Further, still with the Nieman study:

“The severity of symptoms fell by 41% among those who felt the fittest and by 31% among those who were the most active”.

So to summarize, studies back up exactly what I am experiencing at home – in fact, other than having one red eye (that’s a day away from being back to normal), I can’t even tell that I’m sick.

There is an interesting caveat to this though, and I’d never really given it much thought.  Matt Assenmacher, whom I consider an authority in all things cycling related, in one of our extended conversations about the pros, stated that when you get to the elite cyclist, their body fat is so low that they actually go the other way in warding off things as simple as the common cold – at some point it seems the body can be too lean and that presents its own set of problems.  Take my weight, which by all normal subjective accounts, is on the low side of perfect.  My BMI is currently 21.3 – low is 18.4 and high is 24.9 (my pre-triathlon BMI was 23.2 – or the high side of normal).  We do know, however, that the average weight to height ratio for a pro climber is 2 lbs. for every inch in height – which would put me at 144 lbs…  That would take my BMI all the way down to 19.5, flirting with the low-end, or that fine line between being too thin.

Finally, this discussion comes to the usual question:  Do I exercise when I’m sick?  I’ve written before that I always do, with the exception of the one day during the illness where I’m not fit to get out of bed.  In other words, if my hair hurts, I’m staying in bed.  I’ve always wondered if body temperature might have something to do with getting better – if I run (especially with the flu), that will elevate my body temperature…  What is the body’s natural reaction to fighting the flu?  Elevating the body temperature.  I don’t recommend bucking the doctors when they say not to exercise through – but that’s exactly what I do.  Either way, whether it’s luck or whatever, this is the least I can remember ever being sick – and I’m absolutely the fittest by an order of magnitude…  Oh wait, I don’t believe in luck or coincidence, so that’s shot.  It is what it is.

*UPDATE:  Pink-eye or Conjunctivitis is no laughing matter, Dr. James Johnson adds in the comments:  (more…)