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How Exercise Can Improve Your Immune System

According to Harvard Health, the best way to boost your immune system is by living an active and healthy lifestyle. The main pillars of what Harvard Health defines as “healthy” is to eat a balanced diet, avoid harmful substances (tobacco, etc.), reduce stress, and exercise.

The exercise component is not something as widely discussed as diet and supplements. Generally speaking, “boosting immunity” is not a function of something you take or do. Instead, your immune system functions the best when you are balanced and healthy. Taking Vitamin C, for example, has been touted as a way to boost your immune system, but if you are not taking care of yourself in other ways then a vitamin is unlikely to offer much support to your immune system.

If you are looking for ways to keep yourself healthy in the face of flu season or a virus outbreak, exercise could be the additional component you should consider. Plus, it has so many other benefits, there is no downside to starting an exercise program today. As always, check with your physician before jumping into anything too intense.

Ultimately, it comes down to creating a supportive environment for your immune system to function properly. Optimizing that function can be done by initiating regular exercise into your routine. Regular exercise supports your immune function in several ways.

Ways Exercise Can Support Your Immune System

Improves circulation. Within your blood there are billions of white blood cells constantly fighting off bacteria, viruses, and other intruders. These blood cells need help reaching all areas of the body through the circulatory system. Any exercise that can get the blood pumping and the heart rate up will temporarily increase circulation. Overtime, the more often you raise your heart rate, the stronger the heart becomes and the easier it is for the blood to move throughout the body.

Blood vessels also dilate during exercise making the flow of blood quicker. This helps oxygen get delivered to muscles while also increasing the speed of the white bloods cells throughout the body. The more open the roadway, the quicker white blood cells can move towards any threat.

Increases white blood cell production. Not only does exercise improve how white blood cells are circulated throughout the body, research suggests that exercise helps boost the body’s actual production of white blood cells. On average, a healthy person will produce 100 billion white blood cells a day. Certain risk factors can lower production including agiing, autoimmune disease, and an unhealthy lifestyle.

In one study of 65-year-old participants, the subjects who exercised regularly had T-cell (a particular kind of white blood cell) counts of an average 30-year-old. As aging is a big component in the slow down of white blood cell production, findings like this could be a huge factor in aging gracefully and protecting your immune system function.

White blood cells come in a range of variety that provide different functions within the immune system. The following examples provide insight into which cells perform which function.

  • Lymphocytes produce antibodies that defend the body from bacteria, viruses, and additional intruders.
  • Neutrophils are powerful destroyers of harmful bacteria and fungi.
  • Basophils alert the body to infections by secreting chemicals into the bloodstream. They are critical components to combatting allergens.
  • Eosinophils are part of the allergic response. These white blood cells destroy parasites and cancer cells.
  • Monocytes attack and dissolve germs or bacteria that can lead to sickness if not destroyed.

You can see why it would be important to maintain a high functioning production of white blood cells. Whenever the balance of harmful intruders overweighs the number of functioning white blood cells, illness occurs. This can range from a mild flu from a virus to more deadly conditions like autoimmune disorders (AIDS e.g.) and even cancer.

Reduces stress.  Anecdotally, you have probably experienced the effect that stress can have on your immune system. When you become busy and overwhelmed, that always seems to be when you catch a bad cold or fall victim to a virus.

Turns out there is research to support why stress weakens the immune system. Some experts suggest that as much 90% of illness and diseases -- including big killers like cancer and heart disease -- can be contributed to too much stress. A main problem is that stress isn’t temporary and it can be cumulative. If there is no outlet to relieve stress, levels of stress hormones like cortisol continue to rise and begin to dampen the immune system’s ability to ward off outside intruders.

Exercise is a fantastic way to reduce the cumulative effects of stress. You may not be able to eliminate stress factors in your life, but you can burn off some steam with some movement. Instantly when you exercise, the body reduces the levels of stress hormones and inflammation to make that one workout totally worth it. In the long term, regular exercise increases the body’s immune function. In one study from Appalachian State University, participants that walked for 40 minutes every day reported having half as many sick days than non-exercising counterparts. Other studies have shown that regular exercise shows lower overall inflammation and immune markers in immune-related diseases including AIDS, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, obesity, and diabetes.

More exercise, however, is not necessarily better. The study mentioned above were all covering moderate exercise. There is some reason to believe that highly intense exercise can be detrimental to the immune system in the short term. For example, athletes performing 90 minutes of high intensity exercise were shown to have suppressed immune function in the 72 hours following. There have also been some studies that suggest marathon runners may have suppressed immune function in the days coming up to and immediately following a race.

For most people, high intensity exercise’s benefits outweigh the potential short-term immune downturn, but if you have a reason (special event, big project, etc.) where it is important not to get sick - you may want to stick to more moderate workouts until the risk subsides.

Additionally, if you enjoy or prefer to have high-intensity workouts, you can minimize the negative side effects by spreading the workouts apart from one other. Substitute more moderate workouts in-between and make certain you provide your body time to rest and recover, and be sure to check out our compression gear (like our Elbow Sleeve).