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  • Dr. Kristen K. Schulte, PT

When it comes to exercise during a pandemic: Stick to the Plan!

Monday night: I got off work when it was still daylight, the temperature outside was a happy 50 degrees for March, and in my marathon training, Mondays are my day for a 3-4 mile shakeout run. But the problem was that it was not just any other Monday, it was Monday March 16, 2020. I had only gotten to go home early because so many patients had cancelled. I listened to Governor DeWine on the radio on the way home announce that all Ohio gyms and fitness centers were to close. To add to that, when I got home, I received an email from the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon stating that the race would be delayed until October. So alas, on a night when I would have been so excited to get out for a run, I sat on my couch unsure of what to do. The barrage of fear-inducing news was enough to get anyone down (let alone a small business owner and a perpetual worrier of everyone else’s welfare), and I really had no reason to go for that run anymore.

This photo has nothing to do with the content, but we would all rather be on a beach right now.

Any marathoner knows anecdotally that the most likely time to come down with some sort of “bug” (cold, flu, respiratory infection, etc.) is usually in the 2-3 weeks leading up to the marathon. It used to be thought that this was because you had pushed your body so hard that you could no longer fend off infection. More recent research, however, indicates that it is likely that your immune system adapts well to a high training load. Then when the load lightens in the weeks prior to the race (the “taper” as it is traditionally known), your immune system backs off considerably, making you more susceptible to a virus or bacteria that your body would have fought off a few weeks prior.

And it isn’t that you should stay at a ridiculously high training load forever. Research shows that a prolonged high training load can lead to a susceptibility to infection. However, moderate exercise performed regularly (something that probably applies to most people reading this) actually has been found to help protect the body against infection in general.

When I coached varsity track, the most frustrating meets to watch were the ones scheduled at 5:00 pm on a day when the kids were off school. Students may sit all day at school, but the fact is also that those kids are stimulating their brains for 7 hours, getting up to switch classes, and on a routine that lends itself to habits such as eating regular meals and drinking water. There’s a lot to be said for that. On days when school was out, I have absolutely no idea what the kids were up to, but given that I too was once a teenage, I am assuming it had something to with getting up at 10:00 am, eating weird things at weird times, and a lot of time spent on a couch in front of a phone/tv/video game. Then when 5:00 came around, I didn’t have a single athlete on that track ready to perform. Instead, I had a bunch of uniformed little sloths who were running seconds slower than they were capable.

Any athlete of mine who would listen knows that for these days, I would repeat the phrase, “Stick to the plan!”, meaning, they needed to do things that made their day off resemble a normal school day. I would tell them: Get up early, sit at your kitchen table to do your homework, eat at normal times, and if you have some spare time to relax, make it something active like playing fetch with your dog or vacuuming the floors for you mom (not the most popular option among teenagers…). The race results would easily show me who heeded my advice; those athletes ran well.

My point? The gyms are closed. Many people are working from home. Kids are home from school. There is very little semblance of routine. There is not much of a reason to exercise. But as much as possible, stick to the plan. Dig deep into the pool of self-discipline and make your day look as normal as possible. Our Pilates instructor here is offering remote tele-Pilates at the times she would normally offer group mat classes on site. Many gyms are posting at-home workout ideas. Do them! Finally, there is very little Corona Virus floating around the great outdoors (provided you stay 6 feet from the person you are passing on the sidewalk). As long as you are social distancing (and not currently sick) continue with some sort of regular exercise and routine so that when your immune system is asked to “perform” one of these days, you do not have a little sloth showing up to defend you.

(p.s. For those of you wondering, marathon or not, I got up off the couch Monday and ran 3 miles.)


This is an opinion only and not intended to diagnose or treat. Seek medical advice if you feel you have symptoms related to any infection.

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