Today in particular, in a time of the coronavirus pandemic, the fitness industry needs to raise its voice and show just what it is capable of. That is because people are more aware than ever before of just how important a healthy lifestyle – including sports and exercise – is to the immune system. And the industry is turning to science to help its communications.
The German Fitness Science Board (Deutsche Fitnesswissenschaftsrat) comprises scientists from eight different colleges and universities and supports the fitness industry with studies and research findings pertaining to all aspects of training. The desire for prevention has the potential to be a key driver for the fitness industry throughout the coming decade.
The following findings from scientific research can help operators and trainers inform and attract potential customers.
People cannot eliminate the threat of infectious disease – but they can reduce its severity
Professor Philipp Zimmer is the Head of the ‘Performance and Health (Sports Medicine)’ Department at the Technical University Dortmund and is a member of the German Fitness Science Board. He offered a scientific explanation of the relationship that exists between sports and exercise and our immune system.
According to Zimmer, the immune system is an extremely complex entity whose function must be simplified in order to be understood. Even so, it is clear that subjecting a person to high levels of physical/mental stress reduces their immune response. Studies have proven that there is an increased probability of infections of the upper respiratory tract following an instance of extreme exertion. In other words, when someone says “Put on a jacket – otherwise you’ll catch a cold” following an intensive unit of training, there is some basis for their concern. Even so, Zimmer sounds a note of caution here, because the studies on which this finding is based are rather old and were not particularly extensive. This means that it is difficult to establish a clear link between sports and athletic activity in general and a susceptibility to infection.
Mobilising immune cells with exercise
Something for which there is a clear scientific foundation, on the other hand, is the acute mobilisation of immune cells by physical activity. To put it simply, physical activity activates the cells, as well as the so-called effector cells. The thing that is special about these cells is their ability to recognise and kill virus-infected cells and tumour cells. And the process is directly triggered by physical activity. This means that every single instance of physical activity has a positive effect in and of itself, in addition to its long-term benefits.
Does sport protect against respiratory tract infections?
Philipp Zimmer also pointed out that studies have not found any relationship between the frequency of infections and increased physical activity. In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that regular physical activity or training can reduce the frequency or number of infections. However, the symptoms are less severe. Increased participation in regular physical activity and the improved level of fitness that results lead to a significant reduction in the severity of symptoms and of the infections themselves for upper respiratory tract ailments.
Strength training or endurance training? Both – because fitness matters
Christine Joisten is also a member of the German Fitness Science Board. Joisten, a professor at the German Sport University Cologne, is also Vice President of the German Sports Physicians Association, and her presentation explores the importance of sports and physical activity. She referenced Patricia Polero’s publication entitled ‘Physical Activity Recommendations during Covid-19’ and explained that:
“It does not matter if it is endurance training or strength training – what matters is that people do physical activity. High-intensity interval training makes sense here, because it makes it possible to accomplish a lot in a short period of time, and very little space is required.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also recommends that people do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity every week, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. It is a recommendation that was very difficult to put into practice during the coronavirus lockdown. That is why the WHO issued a recommendation during this time that people stay at home but stay active. In Prof. Joisten’s experience, however, most of those who managed to do this had also been very active before the pandemic. Her conclusion: “Even apart from the coronavirus – we have a general problem when it comes to putting recommendations for sport and health into practice.”
How can we improve the image of strength training?
When it comes to a scientific comparison of the importance of endurance training and strength training, Jürgen Giesing, Head of the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Koblenz and Landau, sounds a note of caution: “The amount of data available for these two fields varies considerably.” According to Giesing, past research in the health benefits of these activities was overwhelmingly focused on endurance training. This was due in part to a belief that lasted into the 1960s that strength training was unhealthy and inimical to efforts to improve the body’s physical capabilities. Sprinters and boxers, for example, were told that they should not do strength training because it would make them slower. There is even less data available for children, adolescents and senior citizens. As a result, some preconceptions – for example the belief that strength training is dangerous for adolescents under the age of 16 – persist to this day. It is a belief that has long since been refuted by science.
The WHO has lined up the ball for the fitness industry – it is time to put it into the net.
The recommendation of the World Health Organisation is clear: strength training and endurance training are good for everyone! Giesing says that it is time that we say goodbye to the old ‘muscle-head’ cliché: “Fitness studios need to do a better job of communicating systematic training on the basis of its health benefits.” It goes with saying that walking the dog or doing gardening work also count as physical activity, but these activities do not confer the same health benefits as does systemic training that aims to increase the physical capabilities of the trainee’s body. He believes that these benefits do not get anywhere near the attention they deserve.
Professor Henning Wackerhage from the Technical University of Munich addressed another aspect that is of decisive importance – particularly in light of the COVID-19 crisis: “There is little that can be done about many of the processes by which the human body deteriorates with age. However, maintaining muscles as people get older – that is doable.” As fitness studios resume operations after COVID-19, this is a key argument that they should be making use of.
About the German Fitness Science Board
The German Fitness Science Board was established by scientists from eight different German colleges and universities. Its members come from the fields of sports science, medicine, nutrition science, biology and psychology. The Board acts as a research association to undertake studies in the field of fitness and generate scientific recommendations for actual practice. In this way, it offers concrete assistance by expanding the scientific foundation of the fitness industry and providing findings that can be put to good use in fitness studios.
In January 2021 the Board held its first digital symposium: ‘Fitness in a time of COVID--19’. At the event, participants shared the latest research findings on the coronavirus, training and the immune system. We have summarised the most important information for you here.