From time to time, I hope to provide football fans with some unique insight into the NFL as I experienced it. This particular edition will tap into a phenomenon that’s always fascinated me over the years.
I played football for more than a decade of my life, and during that time I never had a single cold of any kind—nor had I ever had the flu vaccination.
This has always struck me as odd, especially considering the years before and the years after I played football, I’d routinely fall victim to terrible illnesses that would leave me bedridden for a solid week. This, unfortunately, became an annual event for me right around December.
However, this unpleasant yearly cycle came to an abrupt halt once I started playing football.
Was this just me, or did this have more to do with the activity in general? Over the years, I began to notice that I was not the only one who seemed to have immunity to colds. In fact, every single locker room I've ever been a part of seemed to be blessed with unusually healthy individuals all year long.
Typically across the country, between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population will deal with flu-like symptoms, according to WebMD.com. This statistic does not account for all forms of the common cold but is limited to just the flu—which means the percentage of people getting sick each year is significantly higher than the figures previously mentioned.
According to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the average adult will fall victim to the common cold somewhere between two and four times a year. The most prevalent season to suffer from the common cold falls between the months of September and March, which is almost exactly the length of the NFL season.
Why do football players never get sick?
Football players, and likely athletes in general, appear to have a remarkable ability to remain free from illness despite having to be outside constantly through the dead of winter.
You would think that being exposed to all the stress and travel during the winter months, along with the close proximity to sweat, dirt and harsh weather conditions, would put football players at high risk for contracting illness. Yet it was incredibly rare that anyone would end up getting sick. More often than not, an entire football season would come and go, and not a single teammate of mine would show symptoms of a cold.
Despite the high level of occurrence for the common cold and even the influenza virus for the rest of country during the football season, football players themselves have a remarkable ability to remain symptom-free of all such ailments.
As a matter of fact, as long as I played football, I was impervious to getting sick during the winter months. I went years without ever having to deal with a cold. I can also say with a great deal of confidence that I was not alone in this immunity.
For years, I watched the same story play out from team to team and person to person. Football players, and perhaps athletes in general, seem to have an overwhelming ability to avoid sicknesses such as the common cold or flu.
In all of my 10-plus years of playing football, I didn't once receive a flu vaccination of any kind. During that time, I never encountered so much as a sniffle. What fascinates me more is that I was not some outlier to the norm in this regard. From years of casual observation, it would appear as though there’s a correlation between the habits and active lifestyles of athletes and their ability to stay healthy and free from illnesses like the common cold.
When looking for answers to explain this perceived phenomenon, I discovered that research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that the severity of common cold symptoms fell by 41 percent in those who were the fittest and by 31 percent among those who were the most active. The results led researchers to believe that bouts of exercise spark a temporary rise in immune system cells circulating around the body, and each bout of exercise is likely to enhance the body’s surveillance of harmful viruses and bacteria.
Following this logical pathway, it would seem reasonable to speculate that the unique, physical demands placed on NFL athletes are so rigorous that their immunity to colds and the flu must be off the charts. This explains why you almost never hear about a football player missing time because he's too sick.
I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the way the body's temperature is naturally elevated during intense physical activity, essentially creating similar conditions to when we fight off an invasion by way of a fever. Perhaps exercise is a form of a self-induced fever that’s constantly killing off unwelcome intruders into our body.
For what it’s worth, it would seem football is not all bad when it comes to our health, at least in the short term.
And so, as we brace ourselves for the cold and flu season, hoping to evade those dreaded days of agonizing body aches, coughing, sore throats and other symptoms of a winter cold, we should learn from our professional athletes that perhaps the best preventative medicine of all is to simply lead a highly active lifestyle.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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