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Physical Activity can Help during the Cold and Flu Season

November 7, 2011 by Marc Faktor, Certified Exercise Physiologist

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It's getting colder; people are spending more time indoors in closer proximity and its flu season!

Aside from washing your hands, drinking hot fluids, taking immune system boosters and following other influenza avoidance practices (e.g. immunization), physical activity is a GREAT way to boost our immune system in an effort to prevent the flu and or speed up recovery

(note: people who are physically active on a regular basis generally have efficient immune systems; therefore, recovery times are usually faster).

How does physical activity improve our immune systems? This is not a simple question to answer; however, scientists are working very hard to properly outline the many pathways in which physical activity functions to improve our immune functionality.

Below are a few simple findings:

  • Individuals, who exercise regularly at a light to moderate intensity for 30 minutes on most days of the week, if not all, are at a significantly lower risk for respiratory infections.
  • Activity lovers who exercise for 30-60 minutes on most days of the week have a 40% reduction in sick days during the cold season.
  • Regular exercise helps the disease-fighting white blood cells in the body move from the organs into the bloodstream where they are able to combat and rid the invading pathogens.

Ok so what if you have the flu or the common cold? Is exercise recommended? People should approach this scenario very cautiously. Here are a few DOs and DONTs provided by an American College of Sports Medicine Press Release:

  • DO exercise moderately if your cold symptoms are confined to your head. If you're dealing with a runny nose or sore throat, moderate exercise is permissible. Intense exercise can be resumed a few days after symptoms subside (in cases of the common cold).
  • DON'T "sweat out" your illness. This is a potentially dangerous myth, and there is no data to support that exercise during an illness helps cure it.
  • DO stay in bed if your illness is "systemic" – that is, spread beyond your head. Respiratory infections, fever, swollen glands and extreme aches and pains all indicate that you should rest up, not work out.
  • DON'T jump back in too soon. If you're recovering from a more serious bout of cold or flu, gradually ease back into exercise after at least two weeks of rest.

So in general, if your symptoms are from the neck up, go ahead and do some light-moderate activity (e.g. nice power walk). However, if you have general aches and pains or a fever, it's important to rest well and allow your body to combat the illness (hopefully your body is primed by regular physical activity before the cold so it will respond faster).

Before I let you go, ACSM Fellow David C. Nieman, Dr.P.H. recommends light to moderate intensity before getting the flu shot as it will allow the body to respond better to the vaccine and give your system a little boost.

Hope this helps and don't forget to share your experiences related to this blog with the community below by commenting!

Marc Faktor

References, Resources and Recommended Readings:

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Comments (6)


Posted on Monday November 14, 2011 a 2:48pm

I'm liking your series on colds. I didn't know that exercising 30 minutes a day would help to reduce my chances of being sick. I walk to work so, I guess I'm really doing myself a favour! You have an interesting website. I like your topics here.

cpetelski's picture

HealthyFamilies BC

Posted on Tuesday November 22, 2011 a 3:00pm

Dear CarysAdams3, Thank you for your support and comment! It is important to note that exercising at least 30 minutes per day will provide numerous health advantages! This being said, I want to commend you on making the active commuting choice as your mind and body are benefiting. In addition, even though you’re doing some great active commuting your body may have already adapted to this stimulus and as a result it may not be enough exercise to continually improve fitness. It is important to challenge yourself on a weekly basis. This can be done by slightly increasing the intensity of exercise (e.g. walking slightly faster on some days or interval training ( as well as by incorporating strengthening exercises 2-3x per week and flexibility/range of motion exercises on a daily basis. If you’re doing this already, that’s amazing! If not, please don’t get overwhelmed! This stuff can even be incorporated into your walks to and from work. If you would like assistance in optimizing your physical activity regimen specific to your health history and needs, please do not hesitate to contact the physical activity line: 1877-725-1149 or Keep up the great work! Sincerely, Marc Faktor, MSc., CSEP CEP®


Posted on Tuesday November 15, 2011 a 7:29pm

I am really trying to get my kids off of their screens and outside to play. This is another reason to do so! Anybody have some tips to motivate pre-teens to get moving?

cpetelski's picture

HealthyFamilies BC

Posted on Tuesday November 22, 2011 a 3:00pm

Dear Cynthia, This is definitely a great concern! Here is a link to the Sedentary Behavior Guidelines, designed specifically for children and youth ( The guidelines suggest for families to assist teens in swapping sedentary time with active time by taking on three important changes or swaps! 1. Promote Active Transport! Instead of driving your kids to school, or providing bus passes, engrain the importance of walking, biking, or rollerblading to school and assist them in making active transport a reality. If you live very far away from school and driving them is the only option, you can always choose to drop them a few blocks away from school and have them walk for 15-30 minutes to get their minds and bodies functioning! You can always join them on this walk as a parent behaviours are significant predictors of their children’s. 2 & 3. Limit Screen Time, After School Video Gaming, and Incorporate Active play as well as Family Time! (The nuts and bolts to your question) The guidelines suggest assisting teens in incorporating activity into their afternoons by enforcing active transport to and from friend’s houses. Try assisting them in scheduling get-togethers that will allow for safe walks and or bike rides to and from. In addition, fun outings like community pools, trampoline centers, driving ranges, batting cages, ice rinks etc are always great ways for kids and teens to get moving while having fun! Heck, even taking them to the mall to chase down girls or boys is a great way to get them up and off the couch! Even though I don’t like promoting screen time, there are also lots of “active” options for gamers these days that will allow for increased activity while gaming (e.g. In addition to the sedentary behavior guidelines, here is a “Parents Guide to Activity” provided by the great folks at ParticipACTION: I hope this helps! Sincerely, Marc Faktor, MSc., CSEP CEP®


Posted on Wednesday November 16, 2011 a 8:46am

Great series on colds. It seems like everyone in our office has been getting a cold lately. So I passed on this article for everyone to read and got a bunch of us to committed to 1-2 lunch hour walks a week (which I know has other physical and mental benefits as well ;) )

cpetelski's picture

HealthyFamilies BC

Posted on Tuesday November 22, 2011 a 3:01pm

Dear Yorkie1, Thank you very much for the comment and kind words! It really does feel like everyone around me is getting sick, and it is sometimes unavoidable. I will admit that I even got hit with a bad case of the flu; however, I was back on my feet in no time thanks to my active lifestyle. In addition, I really want to commend you on taking a lead role in promoting activity in your workplace! This is truly amazing as you are changing lives by assisting individuals in positive and hopefully long lasting lifestyle change. Keep up the greatness, and don’t forget to Keep Positive, Keep Smiling, and KEEP MOVING! Sincerely, Marc Faktor, MSc., CSEP CEP®


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