Exercise and immunity
Battling another cough or cold? Feeling tired all the time? Taking a daily walk or following a simple exercise routine a few times a week may help you feel better.
Exercise not only helps your immune system fight off simple bacterial and viral infections, it decreases your chances of developing heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer.
We don't know exactly how exercise increases your immunity to certain illnesses, but there are several theories.
- Physical activity may help by flushing bacteria out from the lungs (thus decreasing the chance of a cold, flu, or other airborne illness) and may flush out cancer-causing cells (carcinogens) by increasing output of wastes, such as urine and sweat.
- Exercise sends antibodies and white blood cells (the body's defense cells) through the body at a quicker rate. As these antibodies or white blood cells circulate more rapidly, they could detect illnesses earlier than they might normally. The increased rate of circulating blood may also trigger the release of hormones that "warn" immune cells of intruding bacteria or viruses.
- The temporary rise in body temperature may prevent bacterial growth, allowing the body to fight the infection more effectively. (This is similar to what happens when the body has a fever.)
- Exercise slows down the release of stress-related hormones. Stress increases the chance of illness.
While exercise is beneficial, be careful not to "overdo" it. People who already exercise regularly are cautioned not to develop too vigorous a workout program in the hopes of increasing the immunity benefits. Heavy, long-term exercise (such as marathon running and intense gym training) could actually decrease the amount of white blood cells circulating through the body and increase the presence of stress-related hormones.
Studies have shown that the people who benefit most from starting (and sticking to) an exercise program are those who go from a sedentary ("couch potato") lifestyle to a moderately energetic lifestyle. A moderate program can consist of:
- Bicycling with the children a few times a week
- Daily 20 - 30 minute walks
- Going to the gym every other day
- Playing golf regularly
Exercise can help us feel better about ourselves, just by making us feel more energetic and healthier. So go ahead, take that aerobics class or go for that walk -- and feel better and healthier for it.
There is not strong evidence that taking any immune supplements along with exercising lowers the chance of illness or infections.
Which of the following is a benefit of regular exercise?
Better control of your weight and appetite
Better fitness, so it’s easier to do everyday activities
Less stress and anxiety
Lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure
All of the above
How much daily exercise do children need?
Kids are more likely to exercise if their parents are active too.
Regular exercise is good for your bones.
Exercise can help you fight infections by:
Making you more confident
Making immune system stronger
Making you feel like nothing can hurt you
Weight or strength training can build muscle and improve strength at any age.
This is an important part of an exercise program:
Warming up and cooling down
Choosing the right gym
Push-ups and sit-ups
A and D
Some exercises can make you less likely to fall.
Which of the following can help prevent sports injuries?
Wearing safety gear
Slowly increasing how long and how hard you exercise
Warming up and cooling down
All of the above
Some people just don’t have time to be physically active.
Ivker RS. Chronic sinusitis. In: Rakel D. Integrative Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 19.
Barrett B. Viral upper respiratory infection. In: Rakel D. Integrative Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 20.
Hewitt MJ. Writing an exercise prescription. In: Rakel D. Integrative Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 90.
Johnson R, Knopp W. Nonorthopaedic conditions. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 3.
Woods JA. Exercise, inflammation, and innate immunity. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2009;29(2):381-393.
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Review Date: 5/15/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.