The following article does not contain medical advice. It presents long term training strategies for increasing general resistance in healthy people. The author would like to thank Kristann Heinz, MD and Paul White, MD for their valuable input.
Take care of your family and your other responsibilities. Then train.
The following strategies should improve your odds of staying healthy or, at least, fighting off a virus more effectively:
- Increase the reserve powers of your main functional systems;
- Improve your non-specific resilience through cross adaptation;
- Do not compromise your immune system by excessive and irrational training.
One at a time.
1. Increase the Reserve Powers of Your Main Functional Systems
I have written about Academician Nikolay Amosov’s “quantity of health” thesis more than once, but not enough.
According to Amosov, most people are only “statically healthy”—until the environment disrupts their fragile status quo. Although they may be feeling fine, even a mild infection is potentially dangerous to them. Not the infection itself, but the complications from the strain it puts on the supply systems.
The scientist coined the term “the quantity of health”, or the sum of the reserve powers of the main functional systems. It is measured with the “health reserve coefficient”, the ratio of the system’s maximal output to the everyday demands on it.
For example, a person’s body needs one gallon of blood per minute at rest. If pushed to the limit, his/her heart can pump out 1.3 gallons per minute—the maximal cardiac output. Thus, his/her heart’s reserve coefficient is 1.3:
Should the demands on the heart increase by more than 30% as a result of some severe stress, the dry medical verdict will read: “Died from complications.” In case of COVID-19, doctors tell us it is the respiratory system that is likely to be the weak link that could spell curtains to a patient.
Thus, it is axiomatic that a person who desires to be anti-fragile must train his or her cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
“Cardio” can be trained traditionally with running, cycling, swimming, etc. Do your homework and use a reputable training method, such as Dr. Phil Maffetone’s.
If you prefer to get your “cardio” while lifting—or you are stuck indoors because of the quarantine—avoid “grinds” and go explosive.
Dr. Fred Hatfield explained how: “…for…weight training to be beneficial in improving max VO2 uptake values, it must be non-restrictive, rhythmic with relaxation pauses between each rep, of sufficient intensity to maintain a pulse rate above 60-70% of the trainee’s maximum heart rate, and greater than 30 minutes duration. Also, each repetition should be an all-out effort as well—maximum contracture against submaximal resistance, so multiple reps can be performed.”
A “weight” does not have to be a barbell or a kettlebell; it can be your own weight.
To use the burpee as an example, you will
need to make two radical changes from the way it is done in “metcon” gyms to
make it aerobic.
First, pop up like a spring. The common “Chariots of Fire” style of performance will not cut it.
Second, rest between reps long enough to sustain an aerobic effort for over 30 minutes. For instance, do a rep, slowly walk to one end of the room, walk back, do another rep… Or do a rep using a timer once every “N” seconds. The exercise will be aerobic if you can pass the talk test before every rep, until the very end, so adjust your rest periods accordingly. Even though you should not go anywhere near a full 30-minute stretch the first time out, the pace you set should allow you to.
As for your respiratory function, it will improve along with your “cardio”, although additional modalities, such as swimming and special breathing exercises, can be used to take it to the next level.
Once the pandemic passes, carry on your respiratory training if you want to stack your odds in favor of a long life. Peter Wayne, a Harvard Medical School associate professor, explains why:
One indication that good breathing affects health is the strong association between breathing function and longer life span. Two studies illustrate this association nicely. The first is the landmark Framingham Heart Study, in which a cohort of 5,209 men and women, aged 30 to 62, was followed for more than 20 years. At the beginning of the study, all participants underwent pulmonary testing and had an evaluation of a key index of healthy breathing called “forced vital capacity” (FVC), which is simply the amount of air you can forcibly exhale from the lungs after taking the deepest breath possible. Over the course of the study, FVC was a very strong predictor of cardiovascular-related death and disease. This relationship was robust, even when factors such as initial age, smoking status, and prior pulmonary and heart disease were taken into account.
A second, more recent, study at the University at Buffalo followed 1,195 men and women for 29 years and also reported a strong relationship between lung function and mortality using a measure called FEV1—a measure of the maximal amount of air you can forcefully exhale in one second. In this study, lung function was a significant predictor of all-cause mortality, not just heart disease, as in the Framingham study. Again, this relationship was strong even after factors such as smoking, blood pressure, and age were considered. What’s more, the risk of death was increased for participants who had only moderately impaired lung function, not only those with severe impairments.
In summary, long before you become diagnosed with a serious illness, the health of your breath may predict your life span.
A Russian joke expresses the same sentiment more concisely.
After Grandma blew out the 100 candles on her birthday cake all at once, the grandchildren realized that it would be a long time before they get to fight over her condo.
2. Improve Your Non-specific Resilience Through Cross-Adaptation
Soviet scientists concluded decades ago: “It has been determined from animal experiments and observation of human subjects that muscular activity increases the organism’s non-specific resistance to many unfavorable stressors people are subjected to in modern conditions, e.g., hypoxia, some poisons, radioactive materials, infections, overheating, overcooling, etc. A significant decrease in illnesses has been observed in people training for a sport or practicing physical culture.”
Intelligent exposure to a host of other stressors such as hypoxia and cold also increases one’s general resistance. These are manifestations of the phenomenon of cross adaptation discovered by Prof. Felix Meerson.
One aspect of increased general resistance is fortifying cell membranes against all sorts of damaging factors, including free radicals.
Beefing up one’s defenses with cold exposure (the ancient Russian practice of “tempering”) or intermittent hypoxia (e.g., breath holds) takes a lot of knowledge—undisciplined practice or following pop methods ungrounded in science are dangerous—and medical clearance by doctors educated in these practices.
Exercise is accessible to all.
Specifically, aerobic exercise. Dynamic aerobic training improves the organism’s resistance to damaging factors; strength training does not. Even worse, muscle building without endurance work makes one less resilient. Pronounced myofibrillar hypertrophy without a corresponding mitochondrial development lowers the mitochondrial density and decreases one’s resistance to stressor damage. (Of course, strength makes one resilient in other ways, against life’s other challenges.)
3. Do Not Compromise Your Immune System by Excessive and Irrational Training
Scientists have stressed that “rational” physical training is needed to increase one’s non-specific resistance and the immune system is stimulated by “moderate” exercise. Overdoing it is likely to have the opposite effect.
Specialist athletes and people who perform hard physical labor pay an especially high price for their adaptation. High level athletic training often leads to a development of stress, a decrease of the immune function, and an increase in diseases. A very high level of adaptation to one factor may have a negative effect on other factors, apparently due to a concentration of the adaptive resources in one direction. A common example is a depressed immune system in athletes in top competitive shape; synthesis of immune proteins is inhibited.
Glycolysis is associated with stress and glycolytic training is very stressful to the neuroendocrine and the immune systems. “Unlike continuous training, high-intensity interval exercise…results in a sharp elevation in the various stress-response hormones… Chronic elevations of these hormones can have a suppressive effect on…[the] immune function.”
All of this means: avoid overtraining and minimize glycolytic training like HIIT and “metcons”.
In summary, here is a simple recipe to make yourself more resilient to viruses and more:
- Do moderate dynamic aerobic exercise;
- Avoid overtraining with any type of exercise.
And lift. While physical strength is not going to increase your resistance to the virus, it might help you defend your toilet paper roll at the supermarket.
Power and health to you!
 Amosov, 1986.
 Hatfield, 1989, based on Stone et al., 1983.
 “Since isometric contractions hinder the local blood flow and dynamic exercise facilitates the circulation, it follows that a greater oxygen uptake can be obtained during dynamic exercise… Static exercise produces relatively high heart rate and arterial blood pressure… Dynamic exercise[’s]…superiority over static exercise as an endurance exercise can be explained partly on the basis of the muscle pump and the alternating emptying and filling of [myoglobin] oxygen stores during alternating muscle contraction and relaxation.” (Åstrand et al., 2003)
 Wayne, 2013.
 Kannel et al., 1983.
 Schunemann et al., 2000.
 Zimkin, 1975.
 Meerson, 1981.
 The phenomenon of adaptive stabilization of structures (PhASS) (Meerson et al., 1991).
 Meerson & Pshennikova, 1988.
 Meerson & Pshennikova, 1988.
 Zimkin, 1975.
 Yakovlev et al., 1990.
 Volkov, 2000.
 Dembo, 1980; Marischouk, 1983; Shoubin & Levin, 1985.
 Yakovlev, 1986.
 Garkavi et al., 1998.
 Konovalov et al., 1991.
 Garkavi et al., 1998.
 Sashenkov et al., 1995.
 MacDougall & Sale, 2014.