Let’s get some things out of the way. I’m not an epidemiologist, a medical expert, a sports scientist, a doctor, or anything even remotely similar to these things. I’m a guy who lifts weight and writes articles. But with basic common sense in our back pocket, I can safely suggest that if you’re worried about the coronavirus pandemic, you probably shouldn’t be going to a gym.
Not because training during the coronavirus pandemic is a bad idea (to the contrary, it’s probably a good idea), but if you want to greatly reduce your risk of getting infected whatsoever you should avoid contact with the outside world; particularly other people, other people’s sweat, and objects that other people have touched with their sweat, all of which you’ll find in abundance in most gyms.
You should, however, stay fit. Continue to exercise, albeit probably try to do so within the comfort of your own home. If you’ve got a home gym, great, you’re ready for the coronavirus pandemic.
The point here is to minimize contact with others while doing what you can to keep your own immune system nice and strong. Speaking of which, what do we currently know about your body’s immune response to resistance training, and whether powerlifting compromises your immune system, and increases your chances of getting sick?
Does Hard Exercise Make You More Susceptible to Disease?
We know that exercise is good for us. We know that it’s good for our immune system and that we’re generally going to have a better chance of fighting off something like the coronavirus if we’re regularly exercising. But what we don’t know is whether hard exercise conclusively increases a person’s risk of getting sick.
Older research seems to suggest that when people undergo strenuous endurance workouts, their immune response drops in strength for up to 72 hours after the workout, to a significant degree. But newer research aims to refute this claim by pointing out that the methodology for these studies was flawed, and that the white blood cells measured in the bloodstream during and after exercise didn’t just die or disappear, but simply pooled around organs that were most likely to be affected by potential disease (such as the lungs), as evidenced by the fact that white blood cell levels quickly went back to normal levels sometime after hard exercise – something that wouldn’t be possible if they had left the system entirely.
Thus, newer research seems to imply that hard exercise
doesn’t lower your immune system or make you more susceptible to a cold. While
older studies did find that marathon participants were more likely to catch a
cold after their marathon, a lot of that has to do with the fact that a
marathon is a competitive race wherein many individuals are running and
sweating in close proximity to each other, in a crowd that’s far larger than
you’d typically get during training. In other words, there are uncontrolled
factors to account for.
Which means if you’re training for a major sporting event
that’s likely to feature you alongside a large host of other competitors, with
long travel times, hotel bookings, or just a crowd of sweaty athletes, then
yes, you should probably not go, provided it isn’t already canceled like most major
sporting events in the past few weeks.
But if you’re just working out at home, or even headed off
to the gym, your risk of
getting sick is far lower, especially if you avoid public transport and
carefully disinfect all gym equipment you use.
It’s important to note that, again, there’s minimal research
on this. Pretty much every study I’ve found went on to conclude that there’s a
definite need for more studies on the body’s immune functioning after light,
moderate, and heavy exercise, as well as each type of exercise
(resistance/strength training, endurance, hybrid), and the long-term as well as
short-term effects of exercise (are they accumulative? Does training regularly
boost your immune system significantly, or does it just help to pick up
exercise during the flu season? What’s the mechanism by which exercise improves
immune functioning?), and plenty of auxiliary questions (exercise and its
mental effects and how that might affect the immune system, exercise and gut
bacteria, ideal doses of exercise, other benefits associated with the immune
response changes after exercise, etc.)
It’s fair to say I’m a bit of a gym rat, so the idea that the potential increased risk from a coronavirus pandemic might force me to stay home for a bit is devastating. However, it’s important to note that while staying at home might be a good idea, especially if the gym you go to gets insanely crowded and frequently features well over a dozen trainees, you definitely shouldn’t stop working out altogether.
Resistance Training and Immune Response
When it comes to resistance training and immune function, I
found three interesting studies that attempt to determine whether regular and
progressive resistance training has an effect on a person’s immune response,
especially in aging individuals, and whether this effect is significant enough
to warrant recommending strength training for its benefits to the immune system
(on top of a myriad of other benefits it confers, from maintaining and
increasing bone density to preventing metabolic diseases).
had their training subjects doing sets of eight at 80% of their 1RM, thrice a
week, for 12 weeks. The results were that no substantial changes occurred,
neither positive nor negative, in neither the healthy group nor the elderly
group, or the group of rheumatoid arthritis.
had ten men in their 40s with roughly 9 years of weight training experience (on
average) train at 65% of their 1RM for sets of 10, until failure (i.e. they had
to do sets of 10 until they could no longer complete 10). This study showed
that training to failure with weights induced a similar response in the immune
system as an intense endurance exercise session.
The third study tried
to determine whether the intensity of a resistance training session could
affect the rate at which immune function is affected, concluding that increased
intensity (greater plasma lactate levels) increased the rate at which the
immune system was agitated.
What this tells us is, based on some limited data at least, the worst that strength training will do is not make you more likely to get sick, and that other data suggest training to failure will give your immune system a greater boost. It’s important to note that these studies aren’t conclusive, that they all suffer from a relatively low sample size, and that I’m not the right kind of person to go around reviewing scientific literature. I linked the studies so you could give the data your own objective read.
There’s also no research on powerlifting-specific training, although
one could argue the first study is closest in this regard, showing no change in
immune function after training with heavier weight, versus going to failure on
a lighter weight (implying that going to failure might be the key to pushing
your body to having a greater immune response).
Despite this evidence that intense strength training has no effect or a positive effect on the immune system, most of us can anecdotally conclude that going all out in the gym does leave us more susceptible to catching a cold or getting ill with the flu. But that might not necessarily be a result of the training stimulus, per se.
It’s Not the Training Stimulus That Makes You Sick
review of the data on immune response after exercise came to the conclusion
that poor methodology might have erroneously informed the belief that intense
exercise creates a window of opportunity for infectious diseases to slip into
the body and wreak havoc, instead proposing that other factors may have
contributed to infection rates among those that did get sick (including
nutritional deficiencies and anxiety), as well as the nature of mass
participation events (lots of people = greater chance of illness).
Another curious point made is the fact that younger athletes
were statistically more likely to get sick during training or competition than
older athletes, which makes little sense since age leads to a weaker immune
system overall, especially among equally fit individuals. One explanation given
is that the older athletes were better prepared for the competition, whether
mentally or physically in terms of recovery methods, food intake, sleep, and
better strategies for peri-competition recovery (during travel, etc.).
Where data is limited, I can feel free to talk about my own opinions. Keep in mind that this should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it makes sense that poor recovery is what’s leading to illness after intense training, rather than the training itself. If you’re physically stressing the body and fail to sleep, eat, or rest adequately beforehand or afterward, you may place far greater stress on yourself and your immune system. Make sure you’re also sleeping in, taking all your relevant nutritional supplements, and avoiding unnecessary crowds. The coronavirus pandemic is a serious issue, and you’d do best to avoid other people to minimize its spread.
During this Coronavirus Pandemic, Keep Your Recovery High
If you’re in a country or region where your gyms haven’t been locked down yet, maybe consider switching to a smaller gym that still satisfies all your needs while attracting a smaller crowd. Keep working out, don’t skimp out on food (both micro and macro, avoid drastic cuts and make sure you’re getting nutrient-dense foods if you’re in a deficit) and most importantly, sleep long and sleep often. Sleep is so damn important, and not just because of the coronavirus.