Old or young, active or sedentary, there are countless benefits to exercise. It helps your body, mind, and spirit, and can improve your quality of life no matter what age you are or lifestyle you lead.
We need to keep active in order to maintain our weight, improve our cardiovascular health, to increase our bone density, and tone our muscles. Did you also know that exercise helps your immune system to function?
With greater education and all the information available on the internet, most of us now understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle. It is common knowledge that we need exercise for a healthy heart and weight.
What about immune system health? It might seem like an unlikely connection, but the two are inextricably linked. How much exercise do we really need to boost the immune system, and is it detrimental to do too much exercise?
Some immune system basics
Before we can understand how we can help our immune system to keep us healthy, it helps if we have an understanding of what exactly the immune system is and how it works to protect our health.
The workings of our immune system are a complicated affair. It is the entity responsible for upholding our health. Think of it like a defense system that is under constant attack from an onslaught of disease-causing organisms. It needs to be highly adaptive so that it is primed and ready to fight the full range of viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi that we might encounter.
The immune system is incredibly complex but in short, it consists of a range of different white blood cells (WBCs) and antibodies including T-lymphocytes, B-lymphocytes, granulocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, and mast cells. Your bone marrow is responsible for making these cells, which then mature in an organ in the upper chest called the thymus. Once they are mature, they pass into the bloodstream and travel to the lymph nodes and the spleen. (1)
Your immune system recognizes when a hostile virus, bacteria, or yeast invades your body and quickly mounts a response. Examples could include the common cold virus, a fungal pathogen like Candida albicans, or a bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae. It makes more cells that will attack and neutralize the invasive organism. This is why when you have an infection your lymph nodes swell. This is especially easy to notice in the ones by your jaw – they are busy making new immune cells.
If your immune system cannot fight the infection off quickly enough, you will develop symptoms and become ill. How serious and how long this diseased state is depends on the functioning of your immune system and the causal agent of the infection.
Does exercise boost immunity?
As you can see, it is important to have a strong immune system. What can we do to make sure that our own immune system is firing on all cylinders?
Switching to a healthy, low-sugar diet like the Candida diet is a great start. But exercise also plays a defining role in the efficiency of our immune system.
During the winter months, it is very common to suffer from a cold or some kind of respiratory infection. However, the fitter individuals amongst us do not have to worry so much about contracting a bug. Across over 1000 people studied, the fittest ones had the risk of contracting a cold drop by 50%. Even for those who suffered from a cold, the symptoms were much less severe. That represents quite a significant difference. (2)
How to boost immunity with exercise?
It seems clear that exercise boosts our immune systems, but how does it mediate the effect? There are a few theories about how this works:
- Breathing is a process that can carry microorganisms directly into our bodies. When we undertake exercise, our immune system works in a couple of ways to rid our lungs of these microbes. The first is an increase of surfactants or lubricants in the lungs. This means that we can cough and clear the lungs, swallowing any microbes in the process, or simply trapping them within the surfactant where they cannot cause harm. The second way is by means of an increase in the number and effectiveness of phagocytes. Phagocytes are white blood cells that devour bacteria. (3)
- Healthy people suffer less from illness and infections. Exercise decreases the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, which in turn improves our immune function. (4)
- Have you ever had a raging fever whilst you have been sick? This rise in body temperature helps to kill invading organisms. The same thing happens when we exercise. Our body temperature increases which makes it much more difficult for the bacteria to replicate. (5)
- After exercise, there is an increase in the level of circulating WBCs. As these immune cells travel around our body, they are able to tackle invasive microorganisms before they can infect us. The greater the number of immune cells in our circulation, the greater our capacity is to stave off illnesses. (6)
How much exercise is good for the immune system?
We have established that exercise is good for the immune system. But what level of exercise is optimal? There is a vast difference between a 20-minute walk a few times a week in an otherwise sedentary life vs. running 15 kilometers every day and performing a very active job. Is it possible to overdo it?
Surprisingly, to boost our immune system, we do not need as much exercise as you are probably thinking. Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise is enough to boost the immune system. This might seem to be just a warm-up for some of you fitness fanatics. (7)
Swimming, cycling or fast walking can have an effect during a 20 or 30-minute session. This is very good news for those of us who feel daunted by the idea of a hard workout. It is good to know that we can improve our health with lower levels of aerobic activity on a regular basis.
An important word to note here is “regular.” With a busy life to lead, it is easy to fall into the trap of exercising infrequently. Especially if you do not ever seem to have the time. Yes, a 30-minute fast walk around the park that leaves you a little out of breath will boost your immune system, but only temporarily.
Consistent, moderate exercise is a key-player in permanently enhancing our immune response, independently of our age or fitness level. This is great news for those of us who do not have the time or the inclination to spend two hours in the gym every day. (8)
In light of these findings, our exercise plan to boost immunity should be 20-30 minutes of exercise on a regular, almost daily, basis. It should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle, and let’s face it, most of us should be able to plan for 20 minutes per day. Don’t forget that activities such as walking up the stairs rather than using the lift all contribute to overall exercise.
How intense should my workout be?
To boost our immune system, the exercise does not need to be high-intensity. In fact, too much high-intensity exercise can actually do the opposite of what we want. (9)
Extremely intense exercise can in fact lower the effectiveness of our immune systems for up to 72 hours after the workout session. (10)
Bear in mind that this research examines extreme exercise, in the case of marathon runners and Iron-man triathletes, not the type of exercise that the majority of us would be considering.
If intense cardiovascular work creates a drop in immune function, then what about resistance training? Is there a difference? It appears that there is no difference between the two types of exercise. (11)
In spite of lower oxygen consumption and a difference in the hormones stimulated, an overly-heavy weight lifting session can have the same negative effect as an intense endurance workout.
Immunity is a fickle beast and too much exercise at too high an intensity can damage it, so how do you know where the line is?
Using treadmills and different durations and intensities of exercise, a team of researchers found out that the intensity did not matter so much as the duration. (12)
When comparing high intensity and low-intensity workouts on a treadmill, immune function suffered over a 120-minute session but did not suffer the same drop in function during the 30-minutes sessions of either intensity.
This study concludes that exercise of shorter duration is more effective in boosting our immune system than longer sessions and the intensity has little effect. However, there are of course unanswered questions.
Different types of exercise stress our bodies differently. Are exercise sessions with low impact activities as stressful over longer periods of time? If you compare a fit person who regularly exercises for two hours to a person who is not accustomed to such activity, would the fit person suffer the same change in immune function?
Getting the balance right
The general consensus is that regular non-extreme exercise is beneficial to our immune systems and can limit the speed at which it ages. An active lifestyle is vital for a healthy immune system that functions well into our old age. (13)
This might seem like there are mixed messages. As with many things in life, moderation is the key. It is best to commit to regular exercise that challenges us, but does not over-stress us. Exercise is one of the pillars of a healthy lifestyle and lack of it is very detrimental to our bodies and health. (14)
Exercise plans to boost immunity
If you enjoy your exercise plan, you are more likely to stick with it. As we have discussed, an important factor in boosting our immune system is the consistency of the exercise. Choose exercise that you enjoy and that fits in with your lifestyle.
In light of the absence of research into different types of exercise and immune function we are best choosing whichever moderate intensity exercise suits us best. Is cycling better for us than swimming? No one seems to know. Personal preference and lifestyle play an important part in these decisions. The most important thing is keeping active and not overdoing it.
If you live somewhere where there are extreme temperatures either hot or cold, then you need to be careful with the exercise that you choose. (15)
Our bodies need to regulate our temperatures and this can interfere with our immune responses if we attempt to exercise in the extreme heat or cold. If you live somewhere in the far north, planning indoor exercise during the winter months would be wise.
Likewise in raised temperatures, early morning or late evening exercise would be more sensible, or of course in an air-conditioned gym.
The growing body of evidence shows that exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. That could be because of improving our cardiovascular health, maintaining our weight, alleviating mental stress or by boosting the functioning of our immune system.
Five steps to planning a workout routine that boosts immunity
- As with any major lifestyle change, it is worth having a chat with your doctor first, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions. Your doctor should be able to advise you of the types of exercises that you personally should avoid. They also might have plans that would work best for you. They can also answer any questions you might have.
- Plan to do your half hour of moderate exercise every day if you can. At least 4 times a week if not. You can keep a log on your phone and see how quickly it adds up which is a good motivator.
- If you are new to exercising then 30 minutes might be too much at first. Try to do three 10-minute sessions every day so you are not daunted and put off your new regime.
- Do not overdo your exercise thinking that the more you do the better the outcome.
- Incorporate some moderate strength training into your regime. This means activities such as weight training and yoga. Yoga is a great way to decrease the levels of inflammation in your body, which in turn stimulates the immune system. (16)
There is a wide range of resistance training methods including rock-climbing, Pilates, workouts with resistance bands and swimming with paddles.
If you are new to this type of exercise, then get some help from a professional, you can do more harm than good if you are inexperienced.
An example exercise plan
The exact plan that you make depends on your personal preference for exercise and should be personally tailored for you. An immune boosting exercise plan would incorporate some of these features:
Monday: 15 minutes brisk walk to work. 15 minutes brisk walk home.
Tuesday: 30-minute yoga class.
Wednesday: 30-minute bicycle ride.
Thursday: 10 minutes running uphill, and 20 minutes using hand weights.
Friday: 45 minutes aqua-aerobics class.
Saturday: Day off.
Sunday: An hour-long medium-speed walk in the park.
The Bottom Line
Boosting our immune systems with exercise is not as difficult or as daunting as it might seem initially. The majority of us can manage a 30-minute burst of activity. Making wise choices such as taking the stairs over the lift or cycling into work instead of driving means that this immune-boosting regime hardly affects our lives.
If you’re suffering from a chronic condition like Candida overgrowth, maintaining a strong and health immune system is a very important step towards recovery. Doing regular, moderate exercise can help your body to help itself.