You’ve probably heard that in order to prevent illness, you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One key aspect of this is exercising regularly. But how, exactly, is exercise linked to health and immunity, and is it true?
As it turns out, there are a few links between exercise and your immune system. Although new research is constantly illuminating the connections between immune responses and lifestyle factors, experts have determined that routine physical activity can lead to a reduced risk of illness. Here’s why.
Exercise kickstarts your immune processes
The main reason exercise is believed to be beneficial for immunity is because it stimulates natural immune responses that cause cells to be better at removing pathogens.
Experts suspect that when your heart rate is elevated while you’re running, biking, swimming or playing a sport, your body experiences a form of physiological stress. To help out, your immune system responds in a way that’s designed to protect you: It deploys multiple kinds of white blood cells designed to eradicate threats.
Exercise also causes your blood to pump harder, improving blood flow throughout the body and allowing cells to travel within your bloodstream more easily. Together, these responses cause a higher number of white blood cells to circulate in the bloodstream than normal. These white blood cells are able to find and destroy pathogens that could have gotten you sick.
Once you’re done exercising, those immune cells go to rest in important tissues throughout your body, lowering the white blood cell count in your bloodstream. If you exercise the next day, though, this same process starts again. As a result, frequent exercise helps the immune system detect and remove pathogens on a regular basis.
Studies have shown that people who exercise more often tend to get sick less than people who don’t, and this immune response may be a large reason why. However, it’s important to note that exercising won’t prevent you from ever getting sick—especially if you do it infrequently. Exercising can only improve your immune cells’ chances at finding and fighting off germs.
Additionally, exercise is believed to help keep the immune system strong as you age. Normally, age hampers the immune system’s ability to fight infection. Routine exercise may help to combat this and keep your immune system strong for longer.
Can exercise hamper the immune system?
Most research has been conducted on the effects moderate-intensity exercise has on the immune system. But what about the high-intensity exercise that professional athletes might endure?
Some people believe that exercising too much or too hard can weaken the immune system. It’s possible that doing high-intensity exercise for long periods (longer than 90 minutes) might put your body under stress and actually hamper your immune response. However, experts have debated this for many years, and studies have shown inconclusive results.
Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid pushing yourself too hard when exercising. For the best immunity results, experts suggest sticking to regular intervals of moderate-intensity exercise. Recovery is also extremely important, meaning you should sleep, eat well and reduce both physical and psychological stress—especially if you’re engaging in high-intensity exercise frequently.
Other exercise-related immunity boosters
Aside from the immune response that’s triggered when you exercise, there are many other things related to exercise that can help strengthen your immune system. People who engage in regular physical activity often partake in other healthy habits, resulting in better overall health. Here are a few examples.
- Stress relief: Physical activity is a great way for you to relieve stress. People suffering from chronic stress have increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which is known to hamper the immune system, as well as affect your sleep and other bodily processes. By reducing stress through exercise, you may reduce cortisol levels and help your immune system perform better.
- Healthy eating: People who exercise frequently know how important it is to fuel their bodies with the right combination of macro- and micronutrients. Eating healthy food is also instrumental in maintaining a healthy immune system. Drinking lots of water during and after a workout is also very important for total-body health and can minimize your urge to grab sugary drinks that can hamper your immunity.
- Sleep: In order to recover from a tough workout, you need to sleep. Sleep is the body’s way to recharge and recover in every aspect—including the immune system! By getting a good night’s sleep, you can improve your athletic performance and your ability to fight off illness.
Together, all of these things can produce a strong immune system that effectively finds and destroys pathogens, reduces the severity of illness and helps you feel happier and healthier!