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Hear this: You can’t get H1N1 from pigskin. But high-intensity workouts may be another story.

Posted Sep 15 2009 8:57pm

My seasonal college football fanaticism is under way. And one of the first news makers of the young season wisconsin-football this past week was the University of Wisconsin football team having to cope with 40 players being hit with H1N1. Wow. They barely got by Fresno State. I’m sure we will hear something wacky pretty soon about pigskin linked to swine flu. Please, please, don’t go there. The pork industry has suffered enough with all the misplaced hysteria about H1N1 transmission being liked to eating pork. (It is not, by the way).

However, there is something else that highly conditioned athletes should be aware of. Strenuous physical exertion, the kind that elite players experience every day whether running, hitting, lifting, rowing or whatever, can drag down the body’s immune defense response, leaving a sports star more vulnerable than normal to getting sick.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association has a very good paper on this topic, summarizing how moderate exercise can actually improve immune health, but highly vigorous exercise can lead to oxidative stress in the body that promotes inflammation and greater susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infection (URTI).

The paper explains the role of cytokins, proteins that facilitate signals between various cells and systems of the body and are also involved in inflammatory signaling. “Normally, pro-inflammatory cytokine levels are counterbalanced by anti-inflammatory cytokine levels promoting homeostasis; however if levels are unrestrained, incidences of post exercise infection may occur . It is important to note that although excess, unresolved inflammation can cause tissue damage and/or infection, it is a physiologically necessary component to properly functioning innate immunity. Therefore, the balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines is crucial in maintaining proper immune function.”

If the coach won’t let an athlete balance their workout load — can you say “three-a-days?”– at least doing everything reasonable to help balance the immune system is one way to potentially reduce the chance of getting sick from overexertion.

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