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Exercising during lockdown.

coronavirus exercise health mental health Apr 09, 2020

The phrase 'unprecedented times' is one of the most widely used terms since mid March this year. By now this is probably finding you in some form of lockdown depending on where you are in the world. Not in our lifetime have we ever had to face anything like this. We cannot see our 'enemy', the messages about having the 'blitz spirit' in part are useful, but the reality is that 77 years ago, people could still socialise and were for the most part warned when threat was close.

Some history first....

Throughout history we have seen bacteria as an enemy to human existence, our immune systems compromised or unable to cope, and science not quite ready for what is being thrown at us. The plague pandemics over 800 years ago were thought to have been transmitted from rats, however recent research has shown, human lice, climate change and migration to be the biggest contributors to the global spread of the black death and other pandemics. Sounds rather familiar, if you remove the lice. You see the UK has seen a very, very wet winter, I cannot recall myself a winter like this if I'm honest, noting 6 sunny days from October- March, we haven't had the cold weather either with snow here in Devon that we have had over the last few years. Now, lets add the migration of people, those who were already away, those who had to keep working, those who refused to heed the warnings and those that were scared, moving away from areas where the virus was increasing. 

Exercise effects on the body.....

During cardiovascular exercise red blood cells are part of the oxygenation process, taking oxygen to muscles, they transport more than just oxygen and can help improve sports performance. Moderate exercise is great for boosting the immune system as it helps with white blood cell production, it can expel bacteria from our respiratory system, releases endorphins to our brain too which helps to improve mood, which in turn affects how our body responds. In aerobic exercise and strength training  we also produce small levels of cortisol, which is actually positive for the body during exercise when it is acute (short term), it helps increase amino acids and affects how we process protein, an alternate fuel source in its basic sense (its a complex subject and way too much for a blog post). 

"It's the mind itself which shapes the body" - Joseph Pilates

Cortisol is regulated by the brain, when it senses that somewhere in the body needs it, glands in the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary) send hormone signals out and when combined, cortisol gets produced. The adrenal glands hear that signal, and cortisol is released through our blood. We have receptors for cortisol all over our body. It is higher first thing in the morning, and lowers during the day (diurnal affect). It is responsible for many things, your circadian rhythm, your blood pressure, blood sugar levels, energy and many other areas. It is produced when we are faced with a threat too.

When we are confronted by a threat cortisol is part of our flight, flight or freeze response, how we and many animals respond to a stressful /threatening situation. However, 'unprecedented times', prolonged stressful situations, produce higher levels of cortisol. Cortisol production then becomes chronic, and this is where it can become dangerous and damaging to our health. Minor symptoms of high and prolonger cortisol production include, an increase in mental health issues such as anxiety, and depression (which can increase psychosomatic stress induced disorders such as ME and fibromyalgia), you might become more thirsty, urine production increases and you might see changes to your skin, especially your redness in your face or increased bruising.

More concerning affects on the body are:

  • Brain cells responsible for memory diminish
  • Blood pressure increases
  • Osteoporosis
  • Muscle weakness and atrophy, especially on fast twitch muscle fibres 
  • Cushings Syndrome
  • Menstrual cycle interruptions
  • Compromise Immune system 
  • Mental health problems

Too much of a good thing...

Exercising moderately can aid the immune system, however even in normal times, research shows that exercising for more than 90 minutes at a high intensity can actually have a negative affect on your immune system, so exercising now should be with caution. Try to avoid anything that really wears you out, your cortisol levels are through the roof, so producing more when you exercise will have a negative affect. This is why the government has advised moderate activity like walking, jogging and cycling, not endurance or full out running/sprinting. Agility for example requires the use of fast twitch muscle fibres (type 2) and those are directly affected by chronic cortisol production. The panic of having nothing to do may also make us sign up for lots of things now online, this in itself can cause overload for your brain.

Overloading body and brain can heighten all of those emotions and in turn, create more cortisol production. We are more emotional and sensitive, especially those of us who have say hypermobility, due to the increased sensitivity to environments that comes with that. We also don't think clearly and make decisions irrationally, so we may look at something and think it is safe, when in reality it is not. Therefore, moderate exercise, SIIT (slow intensity interval training) workouts and practising mindfulness are key right now. Resetting the Vagus nerve, the guy responsible for equilibrium, releasing acetylcholine in the body is also important, try some deep breathing, good nutrition, probiotics etc to help this out. If you are doing HIIT training or strength and condtioning it might be worth reducing the time, frequency , weight and intensity of what you are doing. It is ok not to do everything offered online too, be as selective as you would do if this wasn't happening. Your body needs you, so boost your immune system by taking regular naps, eating nutritious food and moving the body without too much stress. We can build our exercise slowly as our cortisol levels reduce, but by practising a little restraint and respect for our bodies, it will make a difference to our whole body and our immune system, both during and after this passes.

Further Reading:

Wet climate and transportation routes accelerate spread of human plague:

Human ectoparasites and the spread of plague in Europe during the Second Pandemic:

The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system

The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system

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