How Exercise Affects Immune Function
When immune function is at its best, it fights off pathogens using a variety of different cells and cellular responses. However, when it is running slowly or going into overdrive, it can lead to a higher susceptibility to disease and chronic diseases. This is why it’s crucial to do everything you can to keep your first line of defense ready for battle.
The function of the immune system relies heavily on lifestyle factors. Things such as the food you eat, your mental state, the environment you are surrounded by, and even your age all play a role in how your immune system keeps you healthy. Exercise is another vital piece of the immune function puzzle – but how are the two related? Read on to learn more about how exercise affects immune function.
Does exercise improve the immune system?
We all know exercise is good for us, but did you know it can improve immune function in various ways?
For example: participating in a regular exercise routine may help flush out certain bacteria that manage to make their way into the airways and lungs. When the bacteria is flushed out, it no longer has the chance to get you sick! Exercise can also change how immune cells respond to pathogens. Specific immune cells known as white blood cells can circulate throughout the body faster when a person gets regular exercise. This speed of circulation gives them the ability to detect any pathogens faster than they would otherwise, in turn giving the body a better fighting chance at catching a virus or bacteria before it spreads any further.
Furthermore, when a person exercises, their body temperature rises for a short period during and then directly after the activity. That rise in temperature may help to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria within the body, as well as helping you fight infection better. It’s thought that a heightened temperature following exercise acts similarly to a fever, which occurs to help the body battle pathogens.
Stress hormones also play a role in how well the immune system functions – too many of them can cause a weakened immune system. Exercise has been shown to lower levels of these hormones so that immunity is at its best.
How much exercise is good for the immune system?
Regular exercise means something different to different people. While for some people regular exercise may mean a brisk walk for 30 minutes three times a week, for others it takes at least an hour a day to reap the benefits. That being said, there is a typical recommendation that people should adhere to if they’re looking to improve their immune function with exercise.
According to a recently published study that examined levels of exercise in contrast with COVID-19 hospitalizations, researchers found that people who participated in moderate exercise at for at least 20 minutes a day were less likely to be admitted to the ICU. The study also mentions that 150 minutes of exercise per week is a good standard to try to achieve when it comes to using exercise to help fight off infections, COVID or otherwise.
Can too much exercise hinder your immune system?
While exercise has been shown to boost the immune system, many people have postulated that too much exercise can actually harm and suppress immune action – which, of course, defeats the purpose if you’re doing it to help with your immunity!
However, the research is mixed. For example, one particular study measured immune function and exercise at a rate of roughly 300 minutes per week and found some immune suppression in people who worked out that much. But another study looked at the immunosuppressive properties of exercise and found that it’s dangerous to assume that any form of regular exercise will have that affect. The study looked at exercise throughout one’s lifetime and associated it with fewer chronic diseases and illnesses overall.
Even if there is a possibility that exercising intensely too much in one week can suppress your immune function, the big picture shows that in general, leading a physically active life will help your immunity in the long run. More studies (this one in particular) looked at how regular exercise affects a person as they age and found that it significantly improves immune regulation.
What does a lack of exercise do to your immune function?
When considering exercise and immunity, it’s important to know what a total lack of exercise can do to your immune function. While a lack of exercise may not directly cause issues with how the immune system functions, there are a variety of things that happen to the body when a person lives a sedentary lifestyle – things that can negatively impact their ability to fight off disease.
For example, a lack of physical exercise is strongly associated with poor dietary habits. Poor dietary habits have been shown to hinder the ability of the immune system because of its heavy reliance on key nutrients. According to the CDC, a lack of physical exercise can also lead to other health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and several cancers, all of which can negatively affect how well the immune system fights off further disease and illness.
The plethora of research surrounding exercise and immunity has come to a pretty unanimous conclusion: regular exercise helps you fight off chronic illness and stay healthy. While it can be tricky to determine exactly how much exercise you should get based on your own personal health, remember that even a simple 30-minute walk every day can help you keep your immune health in good condition.