Sarah Joseph M.S., CSCS

Workout Blog

Get fit, not sick! Exercise can influence immunity

Posted by Sarah on April 23, 2015 at 5:00 AM

Can exercise give your immune system a boost?

The benefits of exercise are certainly vast but does exercise actually improve the immune system? To answer this, we need to get a better understanding of immune system functioning.

Pathogens are composed of organisms that cause disease. Luckily our bodies have defense mechanisms including physical barriers like skin, as well as cellular mechanisms including natural killer cells, neutrophils, and immunoglobins to fight disease.

Poor lifestyle choices and stress are proven hindrances to the functioning of these natural defenses. Moderate to vigorous exercise on the other hand improves the circulation of immune system defenses. Immune system suppressants like stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine), and inflammatory cytokines (promote systemic inflammation) remain unchanged.

Though immune system markers tend to return to normal levels following cessation of exercise, the immune system’s surveillance does function better over time. Exercise reduced sick days 25-50%; surpassing any improvement due to supplementation.

On another note, too much of anything is usually not a good thing and exercise is no exception. Excessive strenuous exercise is associated with increased stress hormones and cytokines. For example, the chances of becoming ill in the two weeks following a marathon run is two to six times normal. Remember, there is no one size fits all recommendation to exercise and you need to find your personal balance between working out and resting. Personally, I work out six to seven days per week with no deleterious consequences for my immune system because I’ve acclimatized my body to this work load. If you are a beginner, starting out with a few days per week and working to higher training volumes is recommended.

I can’t talk about immune system function without also mentioning nutrition. Assuring that your diet is varied and contained a variety of plant based nutrition along with lean proteins will set your immune system defense to high. Be wary when buying supplements making claims to boost your immunity. Many of these products are not backed by science but there are measures you can take to assure that your supplement is of the highest quality. That’s an entirely different conversation. Plant substances like polyphenols and flavonoids are currently undergoing a great deal of research as they seem to support immune function during times of physical or physiological stress.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about exercise and your immune system. Now go do it! Go. Go. Go.


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