The flu season got a head start this year. The CDC reports that this is the first time in nine years they have seen significant peaks of the virus this early in the season. The flu vaccine remains a central source of debate, as the most violent strain of the virus reaches epidemic proportions. Hospital workers are losing their jobs over vaccination policies and many employers are debating their sick day policies as the disease spirals out of control in more than 41 states.
Endless updates of the flu’s toll across the country have many seeking effective strategies for staying well. The flu vaccine has been shown in studies to block infection 50 to 70 percent of the time, leaving a large number of people susceptible despite this counter measure. Begging the question, what can you do to stop the flu before it starts?
Many studies have proven that the efficacy of your immune system is directly correlated to physical fitness. Keep your body in top shape and your immune system will wage war on any foreign bodies that may attack. But, can exercise make the flu vaccine more effective?
In 2009, a ten-month experiment on 140 healthy, sedentary older adults found that regular endurance exercise – brisk walking – improved responses to the flu vaccination over stretching and balance exercises. According to the New York Times, this lengthy experiment made researchers wonder if the flu vaccine followed by a single exercise session would be equally as effective. To test the theory, researchers at Iowa State University asked student volunteers to participate in a 90-minute jog or bike ride, 15 minutes after the injection, while another group remained sedentary for 90 minutes following the injection. The researchers followed up with the students a month later to test levels of influenza antibodies – the exercisers had twice as many antibodies on average, as the non-exercisers.
The experiment was later repeated on mice, but this time, testing for just how much exercise was necessary. These researchers found that among mice that exercised 45, 90 and 180 minutes, those who exercised 90-minutes saw a boost in influenza antibodies. The other two groups saw a reduced response or no response at all - evidence suggesting that how long you exercise matters as much as exercising at all.
Still, experts remain cautious about recommending exercise as a way to boost the flu vaccine. A co-author of one study told The New York Times that data about exercise and flu vaccines is incomplete. It is not clear whether there is any advantage to exercising before the shot instead of afterward, or vice versa; or whether doing both might provoke the greatest response or a weakened response.
Statistically, there is a 50/50 chance the flu shot will work for you. But, there is a 100 percent chance that physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle will boost your immune system. It may not guarantee protection against catching the flu, but it will ensure you survive its wrath with minimum impact. Rates of progression to pneumonia and death among flu victims are highest among populations with weakened immune systems.