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How to Boost Your Immune System With Appropriate Exercise

Updated on January 13, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a biology teacher who loves to walk. She enjoys exploring places on foot and appreciates the health benefits of walking.

Walking in an interesting place can add to the enjoyment of exercise.
Walking in an interesting place can add to the enjoyment of exercise. | Source

Exercise and Immunity

Exercise is a great way to boost the activity of our immune system and reduce the risk of disease. The system constantly protects us from dangers, but it works better under some conditions than others. Its job is to attack and destroy cells and particles that can damage our body and make us ill. Researchers have found that regular, moderate exercise improves immunity.

The immune system protects us from pathogens, or microbes that can cause disease. We inhale potentially dangerous viruses, bacteria and fungal spores. We also eat them in our food. Some pathogens enter the body through other openings. Keeping the immune system healthy is important at any stage of life, but it's especially so in our later years when the system often needs some help and the risk of certain diseases increases.

Walking a dog in a pleasant area can be a very enjoyable form of exercise.
Walking a dog in a pleasant area can be a very enjoyable form of exercise. | Source

An Impressive and Complex System

The human immune system is an amazing and very complex network of cells, chemicals and processes. Discovering how the system works is an active area of scientific research, since it's so important in preserving our lives.

Researchers have discovered that exercise has significant effects on immunity. These effects are usually beneficial but are sometimes harmful. Moderate exercise performed regularly helps the immune system to function better while intense exercise seems to hinder its function.

Since scientific reports describe how exercise affects specific components of the immune system, it's helpful to know a little bit about these components. White blood cells are a major part of the system. Some are phagocytes. These engulf and destroy pathogens in a process called phagocytosis.

Phagocytes in Action

The Five Types of White Blood Cells (or Leukocytes)

Cell Type
Main Function
Notes
Neutrophils
Destroy microbes by phagocytosis (surrounding and engulfing the microbe)
Neutrophils are the most abundant white blood cell.
Eosinophils
Have multiple functions, including killing parasites
Eosinophils become more abundant during allergic reactions.
Basophils
Release histamine and heparin (an anticoagulant) to stimulate inflammation and blood flow in a damaged area
The increased blood flow during inflammation helps heal damage, but basophils may also be involved in allergies and asthma.
Lymphocytes
Attack invaders directly, help other cells attack or make antibodies, depending on the type
Three types of lymphoctes are B cells, T cells and Natural Killer (NK) Cells.
Monocytes
May become macrophages, which destroy bacteria and dead cells by phagocytosis, or dendritic cells, which help other components of the immune system do their job
Monocytes are the largest white blood cell.

Natural Killer or NK Cells

Starting an Exercise Program

It's very important that a newcomer to exercise begins their fitness program with gentle sessions. The duration and intensity of the sessions should be increased gradually. Anyone who is very overweight or who has a serious health problem should seek their doctor's advice before starting an exercise program.

Moderate Versus Intense Exercise

Researchers are examining the effects of single exercise sessions on the immune system as well as the effects of regular ones. They are also taking into account whether the sessions are moderate or intense.

A moderate exercise session is considered to be one that causes the participant to be mildly out of breath and to sweat lightly. An intense or vigorous exercise causes the participant to breathe hard and sweat heavily. In general, health agencies recommend that people get a total of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. The total time should be cumulative instead of being completed all at once. 30 minutes of exercise on five days of the week is often recommended.

Hiking is great exercise, but walking on the flat and in a city can be too if it's done with some effort.
Hiking is great exercise, but walking on the flat and in a city can be too if it's done with some effort. | Source

Types of Exercise for Boosting Immunity

Someone trying to improve their fitness level may choose only one type of exercise or alternate between several types. Examples of good exercise choices include walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing, inline skating, fitness classes, and many types of sports. Some people might like to incorporate exercise into their daily life, such as by walking or cycling all or part of the way to work, school, stores and appointments.

Anyone starting a fitness program should check whether warm-up or cool-down exercises are required for their chosen workouts and whether stretching and/or strength training are advisable.

Health experts say that any form of exercise—even a slow walk— is better than none at all. For the best results with respect to health and immunity, however, the exercise should involve a moderate degree of effort. For example, a walker should walk briskly or uphill, either continuously or in intervals, in order to increase the intensity of their workout.

Cycling, running, and walking can all be good forms of exercise.
Cycling, running, and walking can all be good forms of exercise. | Source

Benefits of Moderate Exercise for the Immune System

Although the relationship between immunity and moderate exercise isn't always clear and isn't completely understood, some interesting discoveries are being made.

  • In mice and humans, regular, moderate exercise reduces the risk of colds and flu compared to the risk in sedentary mice or humans. Any cases of flu that do develop in the individuals that exercise are relatively mild.
  • After a moderate workout, the concentration of macrophages in the blood increases temporarily. A similar observation is made for the concentration of lymphocytes in the blood.
  • During exercise there is an increased rate of blood flow in the body. The blood contains agents of the immune system.
  • Regular, moderate exercise helps us to lose weight if we need to and helps us to maintain a weight that is healthy for our body. Being overweight hinders the immune system.
  • Exercise also helps us to get a good night's sleep. Lack of sleep depresses immunity.
  • In addition, exercise reduces stress. Chronic stress has a negative effect on immunity.

Training for a running or walking event can be a fun way to improve fitness.
Training for a running or walking event can be a fun way to improve fitness. | Source

Detrimental Effects of Strenuous Workouts

Strenuous exercise appears to be less beneficial for the immune system than moderate exercise.

  • In mice, repeated periods of long and intense exercise lead to an increased rate of colds and flu compared to the risk in moderate exercisers and sedentary individuals. In addition, the infections are more severe in the mice that exercise strenuously.
  • In humans, after a long and strenuous workout the activity of neutrophils, monocytes and lymphocytes is temporarily depressed and they behave less effectively. When a lymphocyte encounters an invader it normally multiplies rapidly, a process known as lymphocyte proliferation. This process is reduced after a prolonged exercise session, especially in one that lasts at least one and a half hours and is performed at moderate to high intensity.
  • In addition to the immune system changes described above, researchers have noticed that the concentration of NK cells is decreased as well. There are also changes in the levels of specific chemicals in the immune system.
  • David Nieman, a scientist and runner, has found that people who participate in a marathon (just over twenty-six miles in length) have a depressed immune system for hours to days after the event or after an intense training session. Observational studies suggest that the runners have an increased risk of getting sick during this time period.
  • It's been observed that some of the immune system changes noticed after heavy exercise are prevented if carbohydrate is ingested during the exercise.

Cats can be taken for a walk or run too!
Cats can be taken for a walk or run too! | Source

Benefits of Strenuous Exercise

Although a long and intense exercise session seems to temporarily increase the risk of a person getting sick, the infections that develop tend to be upper respiratory tract infections and generally aren't serious. In addition, in some people exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory tract infection after strenuous exercise, no infectious agent has been found. It's been suggested that the "infections" in these people are actually caused by increased exposure to airborne allergens and irritants.

In most people, the benefits of become fitter, stronger, and leaner from repeated and prolonged periods of strenuous exercise are considered to outweigh the disadvantage of a temporary susceptibility to a respiratory infection. The infections may be more bothersome for elite athletes who train rigorously for a long period of time. It's not a good idea for anyone to exercise to exhaustion, however. In addition, intense exercise increases the risk of injury.

Fresh fruits have lots of health benefits.
Fresh fruits have lots of health benefits. | Source

Other Factors That Can Boost the Immune System

There are other things that we can do to help our immune system in addition to getting appropriate exercise. These including eating a healthy diet that is filled with beneficial nutrients and is low in sugar, salt and the less healthy fats, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake.

Helping the immune system stay in top condition is very important for preventing or weakening both minor and more serious illnesses. Boosting immunity when necessary can improve both our health and our quality of life.

References

Moderate and Vigorous Exercise: Information from the National Health Service

Exercise and Immunity: Information from the National Library of Medicine

Sport, Exercise and the Immune System: A detailed look at the effect of exercise on the immune system

Marathon Training and Immunity: Immune system changes during marathon training

The Elite Athlete Paradox: Repeated intense exercise builds fitness but increases susceptibility to infection

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great suggestions and facts. I am a huge believer in exercise; it definitely has kept old age from creeping up on me.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Bill. I try to exercise as much as I can by walking and hiking. It's fun, and it's helpful for maintaining health too!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend, the Immune System is very important to us so anything we can do to keep it working right or better we should do. Enjoyed reading your well written hub !

      Well done and vote up !!! SHARING !

    • tnvrstar profile image

      tnvrstar 4 years ago from doha, qatar

      I enjoyed reading your article. It was really helpful.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for the comment, the vote and the share, Tom! I agree with you - the immune system is very important and we should give it all the help that we can!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, tnvrstar. I appreciate your comment and visit!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      I am glad that I do have an exercise regimen that helps to combat the many harmful dangers you list. Building immunity through exercise is one way to extend our life. You have done an excellent job in helping others to see the benefit of exercise for healthy reasons. Voted way up!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, teaches. I appreciate your comment and the vote. I try to exercise regularly, too. Improving the health of the immune system is an important goal!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 4 years ago

      Voted up, useful and interesting. It's certainly amazing what a little exercise can do.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the votes, Mama Kim 8. It is amazing how many benefits moderate exercise has!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Packed full of helpful, motivating information with delightful photos, this will be helpful to everyone. Thanks for a good reminder of the importance of building and keeping our immunities up through exercise.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, RTalloni. I appreciate your comment. I try to maintain a regular exercise program myself - it has so many benefits!

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