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Fitness and Health

Fitness and health go hand in hand, and this section of our health library is devoted to exploring the relationship between these two very important aspects of life.

Does Exercise Boost the Immune System?

Research has proven that exercise has a positive effect on your immune system. But how? Are there any exercises that negatively affect it? Learn more today.

Does Exercise Boost the Immune System?


It is impossible to deny the extraordinary benefits of exercise. Regular exercise assists physical health by improving the cardiovascular system and lung capacity and reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. It also benefits emotional and mental health

Lesser known, though, exercise and the immune system are intricately connected as well. The immune system acts as the first line of defense and helps the body fight infection and illness. 

So, how might exercise boost the immune system and what types of exercise best support immunity? Read on to discover!

How Does Exercise Interact With Overall Immunity?

Exercise inextricably interacts with the immune system acutely and chronically, but to a lesser extent. Various experimental studies suggest moderate exercise improves immunity and is especially protective of upper respiratory tract infections.

Interestingly, though, one study suggests that only long-term, moderate exercise training of sufficient volume positively benefits the immune system. This notion reiterates the importance of consistently exercising and doing so in a sustainable, maintainable way. 

Meaning, sporadic exercise, or conversely, too much high-intensity will likely not improve immunity. In fact, it may actually hinder the sensitive immune system.

The Mechanism of Exercise and Immunity

Acutely, moderately intense exercise lasting 60 minutes or less enhances the recirculation of body proteins that mediate and regulate immune function. These include:

• Immunoglobulins (antibodies)
• Anti-inflammatory cytokines
• Neutrophils
• T cells
• Immature B cells

Additionally, the accumulation of these transient exercise sessions reduces inflammatory markers. Such markers, including stress hormones, suppress the immune system and lead to a slew of other health detriments.

On the other hand, most evidence suggests that recurring high-intensity exercise diminishes immune function. Too much exercise can also increase inflammation, oxidative stress, and muscle damage. 

The physiological and metabolic effects of this kind of workout regimen elicit an innate immune response. It involves various metabolites and lipid mediators that decrease the ability and capacity of immune cells and increase inflammatory markers.

Ultimately, this inverse relationship creates a poor immune environment within the body.

What Exercises Are Best?

Consistent, moderately intense exercise that lasts for a reasonable amount of time (30 to 60 minutes) seems to aid immunity best. 

Now, the exact exercises are less important of a focus than the overall type. Meaning, the style of exercise will contribute to the beneficial immune results. 

These "styles" of exercise might be best to support a healthy immune system:

• Pilates and yoga
• Resistance and strength training that incorporates rest times in between sets, or the amount of times an exercise is repeated (typically 3 to 4)
• Brisk walking
• Dancing
• Recreational sports
• Water aerobics or light swimming
• Low-intensity bike riding rather than high-intensity cycle classes
• Low-intensity jogging 
• Stretching sessions

Truly, any movement that feels gentle, energizing, and rejuvenating likely benefits health and, thus, immunity best!

Are There Downsides of Exercising for Your Immune System?

More is not always better as previously mentioned. This especially serves true concerning prolonged endurance exercise. 

In the study mentioned above, researchers compared the acute effects of heavy endurance exertion on immune response. They concluded that this kind of exercise suppresses and stresses the immune system.

Researchers also measured stress hormones like cortisol and markers of immune function such as interleukin-6. Study participants engaging in heavy endurance exercise revealed higher levels of both compared to the non-athletes. This indicates a proinflammatory response, in which prolonged inflammation wreaks havoc and may reduce immunity as a result.

Thus, the type of exercise truly matters for immune health. Heavy or prolonged aerobic workouts may impair the immune system because of the way it taxes the body. On the other hand, lower-intensity exercise helps boost immunity while simultaneously leading to other health benefits.

Limit heavy and prolonged aerobic workouts such as:

• Intense running
• Cycling
• Swimming

Include more lower-intensity exercise such as:

• Resistance training
• Yoga
• Pilates
• Walking
• Non-plyometric strength circuits

The Bottom Line

Exercise elicits many health benefits, one being improved immunity. 

Just remember, more than about 60 minutes of high-intensity or long endurance styles of exercise may evoke poor immunity. 

No need to be a sweaty slave of the gym for hours on end! Moderately maintainable exercise helps stave sickness sufficiently enough and balance awaits!

In addition to adopting an exercise routine, strengthen immunity by eating a nutrient-dense, balanced diet. Managing stress can likewise build and keep a strong immune system to keep the body physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.

References:

Cytokine Function. www.sinobiological.com/resource/cytokines/cytokine-function

Nieman DC, Pedersen BK. Exercise and immune function. Recent developments. Sports Med. 1999 Feb;27(2):73-80. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199927020-00001. PMID: 10091272.

Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system. J Sport Health Sci. 2019 May;8(3):201-217. doi: 10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009. Epub 2018 Nov 16. PMID: 31193280; PMCID: PMC6523821.

Sara Dust's Photo
Written By Sara Dust. Published on November 05, 2020. Updated on November 05, 2020.

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