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HSRI Lightning Jeff Woods

HSRI Lightning Talks—Jeff Woods

Four AHS professors—Jeff Woods of KCH, Kim Shinew and Bill Stewart of RST, and Marie Channell of SHS—recently took part in the HSRI Lightning Talks for COVID-19, hosted by Paulanne Jushkevich, Associate Vice Chancellor for Advancement, Health Sciences & Research Initiatives. The four discussed their areas of research focus within the prism of COVID-19. First up is Jeff Woods.

Click here to see the full transcript.

PAULANNE JUSHKEVICH: It's 1 o'clock central time, and I'm welcoming you to the HSRI Lightning Talks, specifically about COVID-19 because we all just can't hear enough of COVID-19, can we? My name is Paulanne Juskevich. I'm the associate vice chancellor for Advancement for Health Sciences and Research Initiative, which is where the HSRI comes from. I'm going to go ahead and introduce our very first speaker.

JEFF WOODS: I'm Jeff Woods. I'm a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, and I study how exercise affects the immune system and how an activated immune system affects your brain and your behavior. As you might imagine, many of us talking to you today are getting asked to do a lot of interviews for the media.

For me, there's really three questions that usually come up from reporters. One is, is it safe to exercise during a pandemic? Second, how do I exercise safely to reduce risk for infection? And three, does exercise affect your immune system? So the first question, is it safe to exercise during this viral pandemic? Absolutely. You should not limit the multitude of health benefits that exercise provides just because there's a new virus in our environment. In fact, many of the conditions that make us more susceptible to the virus can be alleviated by regular exercise.

So you've probably heard that factors like diabetes, obesity, heart conditions, and high blood pressure can all make you more susceptible to COVID-19. And these are all conditions that can be prevented or improved by regular exercise. So if you exercise, there is no reason to stop now. If you are sedentary, there's even more reason to start exercising.

As you heard a minute ago, routines are good and helps combat the stress of isolation or close contact prolonged cohabitation. We also know that older adults are more susceptible to the virus. Unfortunately, while exercise can't make you younger, it can make you stronger and more resilient to challenges, including infectious diseases. So if you're infected with the coronavirus and you're physically fit, you have a much better outcome of the course of disease.

The second question, can you exercise safely during the pandemic? Yes, if you take some precautions. Obviously, you'd want to limit your exposure to other people, especially if they have symptoms. This also means exercising alone more or with family members living with you. Social distancing is important when exercising with others. Six feet is fine but you need to be aware of the wind if you're outside, especially if you're cycling or running with someone. You might need decrease your social distance in these circumstances.

I would continue to avoid gyms and public workout spaces for now. When stay-at-home orders are relaxed, if you do go to the gyms and public workout places, make sure you sanitize any equipment before and after use. I know that as of June 1 in Illinois, sessions with personal trainers will be allowed. But I've actually been working with my personal trainer on Zoom, so that may be an option for you if you've been disrupted in that way.

Use the outdoors more for your workouts. In the last two months, I've seen more people exercising outside than ever before. And this is a trend I really hope that continues after the pandemic. The pandemic is also a chance to use new technologies to make exercise more fun and social-- apps and things like that. Some of the tools that I use, include a smart bike trainer and social fitness apps, like Zwift and Strava, to compete and actually exercise virtually with others.

Now is the time to experiment with new things that you can incorporate to help you long term with your exercise compliance, like during the winter months or after daylight hours. If you're starting a new exercise program, it's always good to get advice from your doctor prior and make sure that you progress very slowly to gain fitness at first. There actually is some evidence that high-intensity prolonged exercise may compromise your immune system. That's something you probably wouldn't want to do right now.

The last question, does exercise affect your immune system? The short answer is that it does. Work that we've done has proven that. Every time you begin an exercise session, your body initiates a fight-or-flight response to prepare for it. Your heart, blood vessels, skin, brain and other organs are activated. So is your immune system.

Exercise mobilizes your immune cells. It can mobilize new immune cells from your bone marrow but it also recruits immune cells to your blood and circulation and moves them into your tissues and back via your lymphatic system. By doing this, exercise really puts your body on high alert to defend itself if you become infected.

So what evidence is there that this makes a difference? Because we can't actually infect people, we've done some experiments in animals-- mice-- and found that moderate exercise actually reduced symptoms and mortality to an infectious dose of influenza. To test this in people with funding from NIH, we did a study to determine whether exercise improved flu vaccine responses in older adults who manifest lower responses.

We found that older adults that had exercised trained prior to and after their flu vaccine had a longer lasting protective effect of the vaccine. Basically they were protected well into the end of the flu season into March and April, when you usually get your shot in October. The flu vaccine tends to wear off over time. That's why you need it every year.

So the take-home messages here are, one, it is safe to exercise with precautions. And if you do so, exercise may reduce your risk for infection or poor outcome if infected. And two, exercise benefits your immune system with the caveat that is probably not a good time to do highly intense prolonged exercise if you're not accustomed to it. So I've got my workout scheduled for later today, and I hope you do as well. Thank you for your attention.

PAULANNE JUSHKEVICH: Thank you so much, Jeff.

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