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No one likes getting ill, especially those who love cycling and want to be able to do it as much as possible. Taking care of your immune system is the best way to stay well, and we know that fit people are generally more likely to have a healthy immune system. But is there a line between being healthy and doing too much? We take a look at the relationship between cycling and the immune system and explore that fine line between health and illness.
Most people know what the immune system is and its general function within the body, but have you ever considered the work that your lymphatic system does? You may have heard of lymph nodes and even had swollen glands in the past, so you’re already halfway there. The lymphatic system is interrelated with the immune system and is made up of a network of vessels and nodes. The lymph nodes are where the body fights off infection while lymph vessels work to drain waste fluid, regenerate tissue and detoxify the body.
With all that said, you’d be wise to keep your lymphatic system happy and healthy and one of the easiest ways to do this is with exercise. Cycling is great for the lymphatic system as it stimulates the muscles to keep lymph moving and flowing by opening and closing lymphatic valves. Cycling regularly will keep you healthy and reduce your risk of infections and illnesses.
Scientists have identified three main types of immunity: healing wounds, natural immunity, and adaptive immunity. The good news is that exercise such as cycling boosts all three types of immunity, giving the optimum level of protection against illness and disease. Cycling strengthens the immune system by maintaining a healthy number of lymphocytes and generally improving the level of protection the immune system can give.
One study completed in 2018 proved conclusively that cycling strengthens the immune system and can even prevent the effects of aging. In the study, published in the scientific journal ‘Aging Cell’, researchers studied a sample of 125 cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79. The scientists examined the participants’ blood for markers of T-cells, which are a type of lymphocyte that helps the body fight infections.
The researchers compared the cyclists to people in the same age group who did not exercise regularly, as well as younger adults between the ages 20 and 36. Not only was T-cell activity higher in the active adults than the inactive adults, the cyclists were also producing the same level of T-cell activity as young adults in their 20s. What this proves is that cycling regularly can keep your immune system healthy as you age and keep it stronger than if you were sedentary.
However, it’s very important to keep in mind that overtraining or doing too much can actually reverse these benefits and even leave you at higher risk of illness or infection than someone who is sedentary.
If you have been a cyclist for many years, you may have noticed that when you start a new, intensive programme after an off-season or period of rest, you may find yourself more susceptible to illnesses like the common cold, despite being otherwise active and healthy. This may seem surprising, but there is a logical explanation. Physicians who work with professional cyclists have coined a term known as the ‘open window theory’ which states that the immune system actually becomes weaker directly after a hard, intense exercise session. This happens because the body is working in overdrive and all of your systems are making physiological adaptations.
In order to successfully balance training intensity with a healthy immune system, it’s wise to build up slowly and periodise your training. This means building aerobic strength in the off-season with longer, slower rides before moving on to higher intensity work during race season.
Don’t forget that there are other important factors at play when considering your immune system and avoiding overtraining. Be sure to get adequate quality sleep every night and eat a balanced, healthy diet. Those who are eating in a caloric deficit are more likely to have an impaired immune system, so if you’re trying to lose weight make sure to have ‘diet breaks’ where you eat at maintenance level at least every 4-6 weeks.
There’s a delicate balance between cycling for health and overtraining, but once you find the perfect tipping point, you can reap the rewards of a boosted immune system along with all the other numerous benefits that cycling has to offer.
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