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No flu shot? Exercise can raise defenses

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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With the flu vaccine shortage prominent on our radar screens, it was no surprise that an animal study on flu and exercise garnered a lot of attention Oct. 6 at the American Physiological Society meeting. Immediately, we saw headlines such as "Can't get a flu shot? Try exercise."

Let's do a reality check.

The latest study on flu and exercise by researchers at University of Illinois, Urbana, was conducted on mice. Male mice 11 weeks to 20 weeks old were exposed to the flu virus. One group of mice exercised moderately for 20 minutes to 30 minutes for four days. The other group did not.

The mice stopped exercising when they came down with flu symptoms.

The exercising mice had twice the survival rate of the sedentary mice. Older exercising mice fared better than younger exercising mice, but researchers don't know why.

Bottom line: The study is interesting, but we can't jump to the conclusion that humans, too, will endure the flu better if they exercise.

Here's what we know so far: At least one study on humans shows that regular physical activity can cut in half the number of days a person suffers from colds and flu, according to a report from the National Library of Medicine. Regular exercise improves the immune system - the body's ability to fight infection.

Being physically active every day is one of several things we can do to keep to the flu away. Here are other steps to take during flu season:

Wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap, especially after handling gym equipment and using the toilet, and before eating meals. Wash not just the fingers but the entire hand, and scrub under nails. Make it a habit to wash your hands before leaving the health club.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with fingers. Here's one way the flu virus travels: A person with the flu virus coughs into his hands, then touches a doorknob. You grab that doorknob and then rub your eyes, and you could become infected.

Launder or disinfect your weight-training gloves.

Go to the gym when it's less crowded. Avoid people who are coughing and sneezing.

Consider taking some of your workouts outdoors.

Bring two towels. One to wipe your face, the other to wipe equipment you've sweated on.

Get enough sleep and rest.

Eat healthy meals, and drink enough fluids.

Avoid overtraining. Overtraining weakens your body's ability to fight infection. Recovery is important because it gives your body the chance to repair itself.

Stay at home and rest when you have flu symptoms such as fever, fatigue, muscle aches and pains, chills, headache, cough and sore throat. Don't even think about trying to fight the infection by exercising through it. Your body's energies should be devoted to fighting the virus.

Wait until you're fully recovered to return to physical activity. And when you resume exercise, do it gradually.

Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.


(Lisa Liddane is a health and fitness writer for The Orange County Register and an American Council on Exercise-certified group fitness instructor. Write to her at the Register, P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, Calif. 92711 or send e-mail to


(c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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