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Exercise and immunity

Information

Battling another cough or cold? Feeling tired all the time? You may feel better if you take a daily walk or follow a simple exercise routine a few times a week.

Exercise helps decrease your chances of developing heart disease. It also keeps your bones healthy and strong.

We do not know exactly if or how exercise increases your immunity to certain illnesses. There are several theories. However, none of these theories have been proven. Some of these theories are:

  • Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness.
  • Exercise causes changes in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body's immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. However, no one knows whether these changes help prevent infections.
  • The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature rise may help the body fight infection better. (This is similar to what happens when you have a fever.)
  • Exercise slows down the release of stress hormones. Some stress increases the chance of illness. Lower stress hormones may protect against illness.

Exercise is good for you, but, you should not overdo it. People who already exercise should not exercise more just to increase their immunity. Heavy, long-term exercise (such as marathon running and intense gym training) could actually cause harm.

Studies have shown that people who follow a moderately energetic lifestyle, benefit most from starting (and sticking to) an exercise program. A moderate program can consist of:

  • Bicycling with your children a few times a week
  • Taking daily 20 to 30 minute walks
  • Going to the gym every other day
  • Playing golf regularly

Exercise makes you feel healthier and more energetic. It can help you feel better about yourself. So go ahead, take that aerobics class or go for that walk. You will feel better and healthier for it.

There is no strong evidence to prove that taking immune supplements along with exercising lowers the chance of illness or infections.

Fitness Facts and Fiction

Which of the following is a benefit of regular exercise?

The correct answer is all of the above. Getting regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body, mind, and spirit. Exercise helps your body work better. It can also make you look better, feel better, and even live longer.

How much daily exercise do children need?

The correct answer is 60 minutes. Even children who prefer staying inside and playing video games can learn to be active during the day. They can ride their bike to school, play active computer games, or help out with chores around the house.

Kids are more likely to exercise if their parents are active too.

The correct answer is fact. When you are active, your child will be too. Take walks before dinner, play hoops, or throw a baseball. Encourage your child to join a sports team. Some kids prefer team sports like soccer, and others prefer sports like swimming or tennis. Let your child choose.

Regular exercise is good for your bones.

The correct answer is fact. Doing exercises that put weight on your bones will help keep them strong and lower your risk of bone loss and breaks as you get older. Walking and strength training are good options. If you are older, haven't been active, or have a health problem, talk with your doctor before starting to exercise.

Exercise can help you fight infections by:

The correct answer is making your immune system stronger. Exercise helps your immune system fight off infections from bacteria and viruses. It also lowers your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer.

Weight or strength training can build muscle and improve strength at any age.

The correct answer is fact. Doing weight or strength training will build your muscles and make you stronger. Even older adults can gain strength from these exercises. Use weights, resistance bands, or machines at a gym. Start slow, and work up to two 30-minute sessions every week.

This is an important part of an exercise program:

The correct answer is warming up and cooling down and stretching. Warm up your muscles and joints with gentle, full-body movements for 5 to 10 minutes before exercising. This can help prevent injury. Cool down by walking slowly then stretching muscles to help prevent muscle strains after exercise.

Some exercises can make you less likely to fall.

The correct answer is fact. Exercises that improve balance make you stronger, more flexible, and increase how long you can be active. One simple example is to stand on one foot while waiting in line. Or sit down and stand up without using your hands. Tai Chi and yoga can also help you develop balance.

Which of the following can help prevent sports injuries?

The correct answer is all of the above. But if you do get hurt, stop playing. Never try to “work through” the pain because this can cause more damage. Minor aches and pains you can treat yourself at home. More serious injuries should be treated by a doctor right away.

Some people just don’t have time to be physically active.

The correct answer is fiction. Being more active takes effort, but it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Break 30 minutes into three 10-minute sessions and work it into your schedule. Plan to exercise during the time of day you like best, before work, at lunch, or in the evening. Or, build it into your commute. Find what works best for you.

Images

Yoga
Benefit of regular exercise
Exercise 30 minutes a day
Flexibility exercise

References

Abalos KC, Petri WA. Infectious Disease and Sports. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR eds. DeLee & Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders;2015:chap 20.

Asplund CA, Best TM. Exercise physiology. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR eds. DeLee & Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders;2015:chap 7.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How does physical activity help build healthy bones? Updated May 6, 2014. www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/bonehealth/conditioninfo/Pages/activity.aspx. Accessed March 22, 2016.

Lanfranco F, Ghigo E, Strasburger CJ. Hormones and Athletic Performance. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier;2016:chap 26.

Walsh NP, Gleeson M, Shephard RJ, et al. Position statement. Part one: immune function and exercise. Exerc Immunol Rev. 2011;17:6-63. PMID: 21446342 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21446352.

Review Date: 
1/10/2016
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, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.