Thinking of starting an exercise routine in the coming year? Join the club. Americans’ No. 1 New Year’s resolution is to exercise more. And for good reason: Research shows that exercise increases energy, even if you have a chronic health condition that makes you tired, like fibromyalgia. It also helps with weight control, protects your brain, and decreases your odds of issues like heart disease and diabetes.
You may be wondering whether it’s safe to exercise during cold and flu season, especially while COVID-19 remains a global pandemic. The short answer is yes.
“One of the many benefits of exercise is that it helps strengthen your immune system,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist in Darien, CT, and author of The Micro Workout Plan. In fact, he says New Year’s is the perfect time to make exercise an everyday part of your life. “It’s a good idea to focus on consistency instead of pushing yourself too hard,” he says. By going slow but steady, you’re more likely to stick with it and stay healthy.
These steps can help you exercise safely during cold and flu season.
One of the safest and easiest ways to exercise this winter is to head outdoors, says certified personal trainer Ashley Rademacher, who’s also a marathon coach for Rogue Running in Austin, TX, and founder of the website Swiftfit.net. “Studies have shown that indoor spaces like gyms are where you’re most likely to pick up the COVID-19 virus, especially when people are together for an extended period of time in poorly ventilated areas,” she says. If you’re thinking of breaking a sweat outside:
- Choose an activity you like. Most indoor exercises can be done outside, too. In addition to running, walking, or hiking, you can use weights or do resistance exercises with your body weight (like pushups), do yoga, or even do aerobics in your backyard or another well ventilated space such as your garage. If it’s raining or icy out, look for a well-maintained outdoor track, or exercise at home until the weather improves.
- Layer up. When the temperature drops, wear several layers of performance-wicking fabrics to stay warm and dry. If it’s below 40 degrees, wear a hat and gloves to protect your ears and hands, too. “You should be slightly cold when you begin exercising outdoors, because your core body temperature will rise quickly. If you’re too warm when you start, you’re probably overdressed,” Holland says. If you walk, run, or hike in snow, make sure the soles of your shoes have thick treads to help you avoid slipping.
- Warm up. “It’s especially important to warm up before a workout if you’re exercising in colder climates because you’re more likely to get injured when your body is cold,” says Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist based in New York City and the founder of Movement Vault. Even 5 to 10 minutes of stretching and exercises like jumping jacks can get your blood flowing and your muscles primed for more vigorous exercise in the cold.
Be Cautious if You Go to the Gym
The experts we spoke with agreed that until there’s a vaccine widely available for COVID-19, the safest gym is one in your own home. You don’t need fancy equipment or a personal trainer to get a full workout. You can find numerous free workout programs on YouTube, and many require no equipment or little more than a few barbells, elastic exercise bands, or a yoga mat. (If you have a serious health condition, get your doctor’s OK before beginning a new exercise program.)
If you do decide to go to a fitness center, look for open air gyms, like CrossFit garage gyms, which have better ventilation, Rademacher says. “Be sure to wear a mask, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands frequently,” Holland says. Your gym should limit the number of people working out at one time, require gym-goers to wear masks, and sanitize after each person uses a piece of equipment.
Take Smart Steps to Stay Healthy
Simply exercising regularly can help your immune system function at its best. Exercising boosts activity in white blood cells that help fight bacteria and viruses. It also eases inflammation that contributes to short-term illnesses like colds and the flu, as well as chronic conditions.
Remember that all activity adds up. “Studies show that three 10-minute bouts of exercise have the same benefits as one continuous 30-minute session,” Holland says. “You don’t have to go to the gym and you certainly don’t have to exercise for an hour for it to be worthwhile.”
Even so, there’s more you can do to stay healthy this season. Simple moves to reduce your odds of getting sick include:
- Squash stress. Chronic stress decreases virus-fighting antibodies and weakens your resistance to infection. “Meditation, deep breathing, and even hanging out with friends and family or doing relaxing activities you enjoy can reduce stress,” Wickham says.
- Eat more whole foods. “A diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contains nutrients that help with immunity, like vitamin C, B vitamins, selenium, and zinc,” says Alka Gupta, MD, co-director of Integrative Health and Wellbeing at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
- Ask your doctor about vitamin D. The nutrient helps your immune system, which may be why low levels have been linked to severe COVID-19 symptoms. If blood tests show you’re low on D or if you live in a cold climate where you don’t get a lot of D-stimulating sunlight during the winter, ask your doctor about taking a daily supplement.
- Hit the hay. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re more likely to get sick when you’re exposed to a virus. Lack of sleep makes it harder to recover from illness, too.
- Get a flu shot. The flu vaccine is never 100% effective. But if you do get the flu after you’ve been vaccinated, your symptoms are more likely to be mild. You’re also less likely to suffer from serious compilations, like pneumonia. What’s more, getting the shot reduces your odds of passing the flu to babies, older adults, and anyone with a compromised immune system.