How Exercise Affects the Immune System!

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To operate at a high level, the immune system requires balance and harmony across a multitude of functions within the body. Lifestyle factors and general healthy living strategies are an excellent way to support your immune system and allowing it to fight off illness. (1)

Some of the lifestyle factors that can lead to a strong immune system include:

  • Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables.
    • Deficiencies of micro-nutrients such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E may alter immune function.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  • Getting adequate sleep (7-9 hours a night).
  • Taking steps to avoid infection.
    • Washing your hands frequently.
  • Trying to minimize stress.
    • Meditating
    • Self-care routines
    • Mindfulness journaling
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy bodyweight

For our purposes, our focus will be on how exercise and maintaining a healthy bodyweight affect the immune system.

Benefits of Exercise:

  • Improving cardiovascular health
  • Reducing blood pressure
  • Helping control bodyweight
  • Protecting against a variety of diseases

Communicable Disease (Viral & Bacterial Infections)

Regular physical activity and structured exercise have been shown to reduce the incidence of chronic diseases (4), including communicable diseases like viral and bacterial infections. The benefits of leading an active lifestyle include enhancing immune competency and regulation (2)

Mechanism of Reduced Rates of Communicable Disease

Chronic Exercise: 

Exercise has been shown to contribute to general health and a healthy immune system, including improved cardiovascular health, reduced blood pressure, healthy controlled bodyweight, and protection from a variety of diseases (4). In addition to general well-being, exercise provides the compounding benefit of improved circulation, which allows the cells of the immune system to move around the body to do their jobs (1). The literature supports a clear inverse relationship between moderate exercise training and illness risk (3).

Acute Exercise:

Acute exercise acts as an immune system modifier by improving defense activity and metabolic health (3). An acute bout of exercise has been shown to create a 1 to 2 hour period post-exercise where lymphocytes (white blood cells, which help to fight illness and disease) are redistributed to peripheral tissues. This redistribution results in a heightened state of immune surveillance and immune regulation (2). Research has also indicated that acute bouts of exercise result in a heightened response to bacterial and viral antigens, and chronic exercise may limit or delay the aging of the immune system (2)(3).

Bodyweight & the Immune System

Excess bodyweight has been shown to impair the immune system. Some of the impairments seen with excess bodyweight include decreased cytokine production (immune system proteins that mediate immunity and inflammation), altered lymphocyte function, and decreased immune response to bacteria (5). Exercise and physical activity are major lifestyle factors that contribute to maintaining a healthy bodyweight (4), and thus a healthy immune system.

Recommendations:

The ACSM’s guidelines provide a great starting point to incorporate exercise and physical activity into your life to manage bodyweight, improve general health, and optimize your immune system (4). These guidelines are simple and general enough that even without access to a gym or workout equipment, you can incorporate physical activity and exercise into your daily life to help support your immune system.  

  1. Participate in moderate to vigorous intensity exercise 3-5 days a week.
    1. 20-30 Minutes of aerobic activity (there are many ways to get aerobic activity that are not the standard “cardio” equipment at your local gym).
      1. You can accumulate this activity in bouts of 10 or more minutes spread throughout the day if necessary.
  2. Perform muscular strength and endurance activities at least 2 days a week.

For more specific guidance on how to incorporate exercise and physical activity into your life, please contact us to set up an appointment (virtual sessions via Ace Virtual Care are available!).


(1) “How to boost your immune system” (2014). Harvard School of Medicine, Harvard Health Publishing

(2) “Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan” (2018). John P. Campbell & James E. Turner. Frontiers in Immunology.

(3) “The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system” (2019). David C. Nieman & Laurel M. Wents. Journal of Sport and Health Science.

(4) “ACMS’s Guidelines for exercise testing and prescription 10th Ed.” (2018). American College of Sports Medicine. Wolters Kluwer. 

(5) “Obesity and the Immune system” (2013). Dr. Mildred K. Fleetwood. PhD & Stephanie F. Deivert. RD. Obesity Action Community.


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