By Joanna Storey, MD

Back in February, as concerns were mounting in the U.S. about coronavirus, I started reading a new book by Judy Foreman, a nationally syndicated journalist who writes and speaks about health matters.  This book titled Exercise Is Medicine provides a comprehensive look into the science behind exercise and why it is so good for us.  Chapter by chapter, Foreman details how exercise benefits our bodies and our minds.  Two sections of this book have seemed particularly relevant as our community faces the challenges of an infectious pandemic.  

First is the chapter which explains the effects of exercise on the immune system.  Foreman discusses the immediate positive effect that moderate regular exercise has on our bodies’ surveillance for bacterial and viral germs. Apparently, levels of white blood cells which fight infection increase for several hours after a work-out.  We also learn that exercise reduces the inflammatory proteins that can lead to unhelpful inflammation in the body and how exercise can improve the immune system’s response to vaccination.

In another chapter, Foreman presents the evidence supporting the benefits of exercise on our mood.  Multiple studies have shown that regular exercise can be as effective as medication for those with clinical depression.  And fitness apparently has a role in boosting mood in most people, whether or not they are depressed.  Apparently, exercise works by increasing levels of serotonin and BDNF (brain-derived neuro-trophic factor), neurochemicals that influence areas of the brain which process emotion.  How encouraging in these times to learn that increasing our physical fitness can strengthen our immune systems and improve our emotional resilience!  For healthy teenagers and adults, experts recommend engaging in aerobic activity 30 minutes most days of the week, and performing muscle strengthening resistance training twice a week for 30-60 minutes.  Engaging younger kids in a family walk or bike ride can help pull them away from digital screens to enjoy the beautiful spring we are having right now in Mississippi.

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