By Sadie Engelken, Duke Diet & Fitness Intern from Carroll University, and the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center Nutrition Team.
The immune system is the body’s protection system. The body recognizes and defends against bacteria, viruses, and foreign and/or harmful substances to prevent or limit infection or disease. Regular exercise is an effective way to keep the immune system strong; however, there is a lot of conflicting information about keeping your immune system in shape.
We outline five key points to consider when strengthening the immune system through regular exercise.
Previous research stated that acute bouts of vigorous and/or prolonged exercise resulted in detrimental effects on the immune system, including an increased risk of infection and decreased blood immune cells, and an increased likelihood of becoming sick the following days.3 The opposite has now been supported. Current research shows that after an acute bout of aerobic activity, there is a redistribution of immunity cell components resulting in improved surveillance, coordination, and regulation of the immune system. These results, therefore, support that high-intensity exercise; especially in the form of interval training, can be an effective way to strengthen the immune system. 2, 6
Increased circulation results in more mobilization of immune cells, removal of damaged cells, decreased inflammation, and enhanced bodily functions. The most beneficial impact occurs when exercise comprises a lasting, maintained aerobic and resistance training routine. The impact of these benefits increases over time; each mode of training improves the immune system differently. Aerobic training works on the immune cells themselves by increasing their numbers and activity. Resistance training improves inflammatory status and removal of diseased or mutated tissues. Research has shown these benefits can be seen in as little as one month, and even if training were to be discontinued, the benefits would remain even after two months. 1, 2, 4, 6
It is important to note there is a point at which exercise can weaken the immune system. With long-term intensive or excessive training, multiple parts of the system can weaken, resulting in decreased function and increased risk of infection. This occurs when the duration of a single exercise session is too long, the intensity is too high, or when a person does not allow the body time to recover.1, 2, 5
1. Au, K. (2017, November 6). Should you exercise when sick?
2. Calabrese, L. (2017, July 28). How to Train and Maintain Your Immune System.
3. Campbell, John P., and James E. Turner. Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan.
4. Harvard Health Publishing. (2018, July 16). How to boost your immune system.
5. MacKinnon, L. T. (2000), Overtraining effects on immunity and performance in athletes.
6. Sellami, Maha & Gasmi, Maha & Denham, Joshua & Hayes, Lawrence & Stratton, Dan & Padulo, Johnny & Bragazzi, Nicola. (2018). Effects of acute and chronic exercise on immunological parameters in older adults.
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