Scientists have clarified the relationship between regular exercise and the body’s immune system.
You’ve probably heard that being fit strengthens the immune system’s ability to fight off bacterial and viral infections. There is general consensus that active people have healthier bodies, hearts, minds, and natural defenses than those who are sedentary. This is true and there is an abundance of research to back it up. In fact, the earliest studies on the topic of exercise immunology date back to the early 1900s.
A 2019 review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science summarized previous research discoveries about the “compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system.” It focused on four areas of exercise immunology: acute and chronic effects of exercise on the immune system; clinical benefits of the exercise-immune relationship; nutritional influences on the immune response to exercise; and the effect of exercise on immunosenescence (the gradual deterioration of the immune system along the aging process).
Here are the highlights from the review…
- Acute exercise (moderate to vigorous for less than 60 minutes) supports the immune system, improving defense activity and metabolic health.
- Data clearly supports the relationship between moderate exercise and lower risk of illness.
- Exercise’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant influences occur and are mediated through multiple pathways, decreasing levels of inflammatory biomarkers in fit adults and modulating tumor growth and disease progression.
- Increased carbohydrate and polyphenol intake is an effective nutritional strategy for immune support.
- Habitual exercise improves immune regulation which delays age-related dysfunction.
- However, risk of illness increases for athletes during periods of intensified training and competition due to an unusual cycle of psychological pressure, inflammation, muscle damage, etc.
Moderate to intense workouts support the immune system by stimulating the movement and exchange of numerous immune cell subtypes between tissues during enhanced circulation. Near-daily exercise accumulates such benefits to improve overall immune defense and metabolic health. The review also cites several studies suggesting that regular physical activity decreases the incidence and mortality rates of influenza and pneumonia.
The “open window” hypothesis suggests that intense exercise temporarily decreases immune function and heightens the risk of opportunistic infection. In 2018, another literature review published in Frontiers in Immunology reinterpreted past studies in order to debunk the concept of immune suppression following bouts of strenuous exercise.
The review says that there is limited evidence of workout-induced immune suppression. The observed reduction of lymphocytes after working out actually reflect the redistribution of immune cells to peripheral tissues, enhancing immune regulation and surveillance—especially in parts of the body vulnerable to bacteria and viruses, such as the gut and lungs.
“Given the important role exercise has for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type II diabetes, the findings from our analysis emphasize that people should not be put off exercise for fear that it will dampen their immune system. Clearly, the benefits of exercise, including endurance sports, outweigh any negative effects which people may perceive,” said Dr. James Turner.
Don’t over do it though. As mentioned above, those who have completed a highly competitive event or race may face a higher risk due to stress, overexertion, and overtraining. Meanwhile, those who are training normally have an advantage in staving off bacterial and viral infection.
- Don’t smoke.
- Maintain a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, water, etc.
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Avoid or reduce stress.
- Take steps to prevent infection—especially in large crowds, spaces with poor ventilation, public areas, and around infectious people.
- Wash your hands thoroughly—especially after using the bathroom, before preparing and eating food, doing dirty tasks, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, stroking your pet, coming in contact with a sick person, using shared facilities, etc.
- Cover a cough and sneeze with a disposable tissue or your elbow, rather than your hands.
- Wash, bandage, and avoid touching all wounds.
- Don’t share dishes, glasses, utensils, masks, handkerchiefs, etc.
- Rinse, prepare, and cook food properly.
- Ensure your vaccinations are up to date.
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