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Should I Exercise During the Coronavirus Pandemic? Experts Explain the Just Right Exercise Curve

Health + Wellness
Should I Exercise During the Coronavirus Pandemic? Experts Explain the Just Right Exercise Curve
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By Tamara Hew-Butler and Mariane Fahlman

So here we are, perfecting our social distancing skills while schools, sports and other forms of social engagement are on indefinite hold, by a dangerous virus named after a (regal) crown. The coronavirus is named because the center envelope is surrounded by small protein spikes called peplomers. These little protein spikes wreak havoc when they attach to lung tissue and hijack otherwise healthy tissue into building a potentially lethal coronavirus army of invaders.


Because the virus settles primarily with the respiratory tract — the nose, mouth and lungs — it is highly contagious when people sneeze, cough or exchange respiratory droplets with others. Despite its importance, social distancing has been a social disappointment for many weekend warriors, team sport athletes, fitness fanatics and sports fans who find camaraderie, biochemical joy from dopamine rushes or stress reduction through regular exercise and sport.

We are both sports scientists who study athlete health and safety. We're also proud exercise addicts who find the prospect of not exercising almost as disturbing as the prospect of the disease itself.

Here's how exercise affects the immune system in response to the flu and some practical tips on how much people should (and should not) exercise.

Look for the ‘Just Right’ Amount

Both too much and too little are bad while somewhere in the middle is just right. Scientists commonly refer to this statistical phenomenon as a "J-shaped" curve. Research has shown exercise can influence the body's immune system. Exercise immunity refers to both the systemic (whole body cellular response) and mucosal (mucous lining of the respiratory tract) response to an infectious agent, which follows this J-shaped curve.

A large study showed that mild to moderate exercise — performed about three times a week — reduced the risk of dying during the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1998. The Hong Kong study was performed on 24,656 Chinese adults who died during this outbreak. This study showed that people who did no exercise at all or too much exercise — over five days of exercise per week — were at greatest risk of dying compared with people who exercised moderately.

Additionally, studies performed on mice demonstrated that regular exercise performed two to three months prior to an infection reduced illness severity and viral load in obese and non-obese mice.

Thus, limited animal and human data cautiously suggest that exercise up to three days per week, two to three months prior, better prepares the immune system to fight a viral infection.

What if we have not exercised regularly? Will restarting an exercise routine be good or bad? Limited data, also obtained from mice, suggests that moderate exercise for 20 to 30 minutes a day after being infected with the influenza virus improves the chances of surviving. In fact, 82 percent of the mice who exercised 20-30 minutes a day during the incubation period, or the time between getting infected with flu and showing symptoms, survived. In contrast, only 43 percent of the sedentary mice and 30 percent of the mice who performed strenuous exercise — or 2.5 hours of exercise a day — survived.

Therefore, at least in laboratory mice, mild to moderate exercise may also be protective after we get infected with the flu virus, whereas a little exercise is good while no exercise — or even too much exercise — is bad.

For those who are "committed exercisers," how much exercise is probably too much during a flu pandemic? It is clear that both too much exercise and exercising while sick increases the risk of medical complications and dying.

We conducted studies on both collegiate football players and cross-country runners, which showed a decrease in secretory immunoglobulin A, or "sIgA" when athletes competed and trained hard. SIgA is an antibody protein used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens, including viruses.

SIgA is also closely associated with upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). When sIgA levels go down, URTI's usually go up. We saw this relationship in football players, whereas the players showed the most URTI symptoms when their sIgA levels were lowest. This indirectly suggests that over-exercise without adequate recovery may make our body more vulnerable to attack, especially by respiratory viruses. So, when it comes to immunity, our studies show that more exercise is not necessarily better.

How Much Exercise May Be Just Right?

Here are some guidelines based on just the right amount — for most people.

  • Do perform mild to moderate exercise (20-45 minutes), up to three times per week.
  • Strive to maintain (not gain) strength or fitness during the quarantine period.
  • Do avoid physical contact during exercise, such as playing team sports, that is likely to expose you to mucosal fluids or hand-to-face contact.
  • Wash and disinfect equipment after use.
  • If you use a gym, find one that is adequately ventilated and exercise away from others to avoid droplets.
  • Remain engaged with teammates through social media, rather than social gatherings or contact.
  • Eat and sleep well to boost your immune system.
  • Remain optimistic that this too shall pass.

How Much Exercise May Be Too Risky?

Here are some things not to do:

  • Do not exercise past exhaustion, which increases the risk of infection. An example would include marathon running, which increases the risk of illness from 2.2 percent to 13 percent after the race.
  • Do not exercise if you have any flu-like symptoms.
  • Do not exercise more than five days a week.
  • Do not exercise in crowded, enclosed spaces.
  • Do not share drinks or eating utensils.

Do not overdrink fluids, especially when sick, to try and "flush out" the toxins or prevent dehydration. It is not true that you can "flush out" toxins.

The J-shaped ("just right") curve suggests that exercise, like most things, is best in moderation. Stay safe out there and be creative — our game is not over, just temporarily suspended.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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