Food for thought: Working out your immune system

In the midst of honking horns, subway stampedes and the very cold possibility of stepping in black ice, New Yorkers were faced with another worry last week when an outbreak of swine flu—a influenza like infection which usually affects pigs—appeared in 42 school children at a New York preparatory school. Already affecting several thousand in Mexico, researchers fear Swine Flu may threatens to become an infection of pandemic proportions– affecting thousands before the opportunity for vaccination.

A variant of the Spanish flu which killed 50 million people in the early part of the 20th century, Swine flu has already inflected over a thousand people in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. But despite the panic which may ensue from an unknown disease which threatens the population, Swine Flu is actually nothing new. On February 5, 1976, an army recruit at Fort Dix said he felt tired and weak. He died the next day and four of his fellow soldiers were later hospitalized. Two weeks after his death, health officials announced that swine flu was the cause of death and that this strain of flu appeared to be closely related to the strain involved in the 1918 flu pandemic. Alarmed public-health officials decided that action must be taken to head off another major pandemic, and they urged President Gerald Ford that every person in the U.S. be vaccinated for the disease.

The vaccination program was plagued by delays and public relations problems, but about 24% of the population had been vaccinated by the time the program was canceled. This time around, the crucial difference is the physical make up of the population. Because obesity rates have tripled amoung Americans during the past 30 years, the way our bodies deal with infection has been compromised in comparison to the period of the last out break. With this in mind, the question I have gotten quite frequently of late is what is the best kind of exercise to build up the immune system? Aside from weightloss, the best answer is simple aerobic exercise.

While I am a big advocate of interval (aneroebic) training for fatloss, this sort of exercise breaks the body down to build up a stronger version. When it comes to recovering from a cold, this is probably a bad thing. By contrast, walking 30-45 minutes per day has been shown to increase blood circulation, improve tissue recovery and improve cardiovascular capacity.

Even for those seeking fatloss, including a 30-45 minute walk in your weekly routine improves the body’s ability to recover from soreness and fatigue of an intensive routine. Some suggestions for this include:

– Walking after your strength training or interval session

– A brisk 20-25 minute walk several days per week

– A long 45-60 minute walk once or twice per week.


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