We’re all looking for ways to boost our immune systems during such a worrying time but the simple fact is that there aren’t any miracle supplements that can do this. And if you read otherwise, don’t be sucked in! The best thing you can do is stay as fit and healthy as possible through healthy eating, staying active and sleeping well. But many people ask, can exercise really boost your immune system? Can it help (or hinder) our bodies’ ability to fight off infections?
“Does exercise boost your immune system and help it to fight off infections?”
It has been proven that regular exercise improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps to control body weight and can help protect against a variety of age-related diseases, such as osteoporosis.
Just like a healthy diet, exercise contributes to general good health. It is also known to boost mood and improve mental wellbeing. However, beyond this there isn’t a huge amount of scientific evidence to support the suggestion that exercise directly boosts your immune system in terms of helping it to fight off infection.
In the light of the coronavirus outbreak, the question has gained momentum, and some studies have indicated that being fit does boost our immune systems. It has even been suggested that a single workout can improve our ability to fight off germs.
According to Professor Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology and a professor at University College London, to be immunologically fit, you need to be physically fit.
In a recent article in The Guardian he said: “White blood cells can be quite sedentary. Exercise mobilises them by increasing your blood flow, so they can do their surveillance jobs and seek and destroy in other parts of the body.”
He is referring to seeking and destroying pathogens – these are the bad bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms that can cause disease. He is suggesting that exercise helps the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job of fighting pathogens efficiently.
General advice for older people, who are more vulnerable to infection, is to do whatever exercise is possible. The NHS recommends that adults aged 65 and over should aim to be physically active every day, including activities that improve strength, balance and flexibility on at least two days a week.
They should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity if they are already active, or a combination of both, and reduce time spent sitting or lying down, and break up long periods of not moving with some activity.
As Prof Akbar says: “Anything’s better than nothing.” But apparently a lifetime of exercise could actually significantly slow down the decline of your immune system with age. This was illustrated by a 2018 study done by University of Birmingham and King’s College London, which found that 125 non-smoking amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79 still had the immune systems of young people.
One of the ways that exercise could help to boost the immune system is due to the fact that it reduces stress. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can compromise immune function but exercising during periods of stress can help to lower levels of these stress hormones.
Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Reducing stress also helps us to sleep, which is helpful as the body is more susceptible to bugs when we’re tired.
A study done in 2019 by a team from the University of Tübingen in Germany found a mechanism linking sleep to the functioning of the immune system. The researchers found that a good night’s sleep can boost the effectiveness of certain white blood cells called T cells.
In the study paper, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, the scientists explain what lies at the core of this relationship between sleep and the body’s defences against infection. Basically, a lack of sleep impairs the disease-fighting ability of T cells.
So, getting enough good-quality sleep each night is essential if we want to stay healthy and function well throughout the day, and exercise helps us to sleep better.
At the other extreme, there have been studies done to determine whether exercise directly affects a person’s susceptibility to infection. The studies involved athletes exercising intensively, with their blood and urine being tested before and after the exercise to detect any changes in immune system components.
While some changes were recorded, immunologists do not yet know what these changes mean in terms of the human immune response. And these studies involved athletes, rather than average people doing moderate amounts and intensity of exercise, leading to the conclusion for now that exercise does not hinder the immune system.
More evidence points to the fact that moderate exercise is beneficial for our immune systems, as part of a healthy, active lifestyle, including good nutrition, good quality sleep and healthy mental wellbeing.
So, keep moving, eat well and do whatever works for you to relieve stress and anxiety. Don’t be taken in by fake news or misinformation about miracle vaccines or supplements to protect you against viruses.
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Our mission is to help people stay fit, healthy and strong to enjoy their favorite things in life for as long as possible, and that mission continues. Together we believe we’ll get through this crisis.
At PP we believe in spreading good information that is backed by science. Just as we have high standards for training and nutrition, we feel it is super important to be well educated when it comes to all things, especially a world pandemic. So, here are some useful links to bust some myths and provide some science-backed information and advice on the C-word situation.
Gold standard research and evidence: