Skip to main content

How Exercise Affects the Immune System: Interesting Research

Linda Crampton is a science writer and former biology teacher who loves to walk. She appreciates the health benefits of the activity.

Walking in an interesting place can add to the enjoyment of exercise.

Walking in an interesting place can add to the enjoyment of exercise.

Exercise and the Immune System

Exercise can be a great way to improve the activity of our immune system and reduce the risk of disease. The system constantly protects us from dangers, but it works better under some conditions than others. Its job is to attack and destroy cells and particles that can damage our body and make us ill. Researchers have found that regular, moderate exercise improves immunity. They are still investigating how it does this. Some facts are known, but other ideas are possibilities.

The immune system protects us from pathogens, or microbes that can cause disease. We inhale potentially dangerous viruses, bacteria, and fungal spores. We also eat them in our food. Some pathogens enter the body through other openings. Keeping the immune system healthy is important at any stage of life, but it's especially so in our later years when the system often needs help and the risk of certain diseases and infections increases.

Walking a dog in a pleasant area can be a very enjoyable form of exercise.

Walking a dog in a pleasant area can be a very enjoyable form of exercise.

An Impressive and Complex System

The human immune system is an amazing and complex network of cells, chemicals, and processes. Discovering how the system works is a very active area of scientific research, since the system is so important in preserving our lives.

Researchers have discovered that exercise has significant effects on immunity. These effects are usually beneficial but are sometimes harmful. Moderate exercise performed regularly helps the immune system to function better while intense exercise may hinder its function. The latter idea is controversial, however.

Since scientific reports describe how exercise affects specific components of the immune system and I refer to some of these components in this article, it may be helpful to know a little bit about them. White blood cells or leukocytes are a major part of the system. The table below summarizes their effects. Some white blood cells are phagocytes. These engulf and destroy pathogens in a process called phagocytosis. Others release helpful chemicals.

The Five Types of White Blood Cells (or Leukocytes)

Cell TypeMain FunctionNotes

Neutrophils

Destroy microbes by phagocytosis (surrounding and engulfing the microbe)

Neutrophils are the most abundant white blood cell.

Eosinophils

Have multiple functions, including killing parasites

Eosinophils become more abundant during allergic reactions.

Basophils

Release histamine and heparin (an anticoagulant) to stimulate inflammation and blood flow in a damaged area

The increased blood flow during inflammation helps heal damage, but basophils may also be involved in allergies and asthma.

Lymphocytes

Attack invaders directly, help other cells attack, or make antibodies, depending on the type

Three types of lymphoctes are B cells, T cells, and natural killer (NK) cells.

Monocytes

May become macrophages, which destroy bacteria and dead cells by phagocytosis, or dendritic cells, which help other components of the immune system do their job

Monocytes are the largest white blood cell.

Moderate Versus Intense Exercise

Researchers are examining the effects of single exercise sessions on the components of the immune system as well as the effects of regular ones. They are also taking into account whether the sessions are moderate or intense.

A moderate exercise session is considered to be one that causes the participant to be mildly out of breath and to sweat lightly. An intense or vigorous exercise causes the participant to breathe hard and sweat heavily. In general, health agencies recommend that people get a total of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. The total time should be cumulative instead of being completed all at once. 30 minutes of exercise on five days of the week is often recommended.

Hiking is great exercise, but walking on a flat surface and in a city can be too if it's done with some effort.

Hiking is great exercise, but walking on a flat surface and in a city can be too if it's done with some effort.

Be Careful!

It's very important that a newcomer to exercise begins their fitness program with gentle sessions. The duration and intensity of the sessions should be increased gradually. Anyone who is very overweight or who has a serious health problem should seek their doctor's advice before starting an exercise program.

Types of Exercise That May Improve Immunity

Someone trying to improve their fitness level may choose only one type of exercise or alternate between several types. Examples of good exercise choices include walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing, inline skating, fitness classes, and many types of sports. Some people might like to incorporate exercise into their daily life, such as by walking or cycling all or part of the way to work, school, stores, and appointments. An exercise routine that's enjoyable is more likely to be maintained.

Some people may wonder why walking is on my list of exercises that may improve immunity, since it seems like such a gentle activity. Health experts say that any form of exercise—even a slow walk—is better than none at all. For the best results with respect to health and immunity, however, the exercise should involve a moderate degree of effort. This is possible even for walkers.

A walker could walk briskly, uphill, or up stairs either continuously or in intervals (provided this is safe for their current state of health) in order to increase the intensity of their workout. This is what I do. I live at the bottom of a hill, so increasing the effort of a walk is easy for me. Power walking or race walking continuously or in intervals can also increase the intensity of a workout, but it’s important to learn the correct technique for participating in these activities.

Anyone starting a fitness program should check whether warm-up or cool-down exercises are required for their chosen workouts and whether stretching and/or strength training are advisable. A person should builds skills, strength, and speed gradually.

Cycling, running, and walking can all be good forms of exercise.

Cycling, running, and walking can all be good forms of exercise.

Effects of Moderate Exercise on the Immune System

Although the relationship between immunity and moderate exercise isn't always clear and isn't completely understood, some interesting discoveries have been made. They probably apply to most people. The human body is complex, however. Our features vary, and variable responses to a stimulus may appear.

  • In mice and humans, regular, moderate exercise reduces the risk of colds and flu compared to the risk in sedentary mice or humans. Any cases of flu that do develop in the individuals that exercise are relatively mild.
  • After a moderate workout, the concentration of macrophages in the blood increases temporarily. A similar observation has been made for the concentration of lymphocytes in the blood.
  • During exercise, there is an increased rate of blood flow in the body. The blood contains agents of the immune system.
  • Regular, moderate exercise generally helps us to lose weight if we need to and helps us to maintain a weight that is healthy for our body. (A very unhealthy diet may reduce this benefit.) Being overweight hinders the immune system.
  • Exercise also helps us to get a good night's sleep. Lack of sleep depresses immunity.
  • In addition, exercise reduces stress. Chronic stress has a negative effect on immunity.

Possible Effects of Exercise on Immunity

The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists some other possible ways in which exercise may help the immune system. As they say in the reference at the end of this article, the ideas haven't been proven, but they are interesting to consider.

The organization says that exercise may "flush" bacteria out of the lungs and airways. They acknowledge that exercise causes changes in white blood cells and in the antibodies produced by some of them. Both items travel through the circulatory system more often during exercise. Although it may sound logical that this is helpful, we can't assume that it is without studies that prove it.

The organization also notes that we experience a short rise in temperature during and after exercise, which may help the body to fight an infection better. It's known that this happens when we have a fever. The mechanism for the latter observation is still being investigated. Some British scientists have found that a moderate fever appears to affect certain proteins in the body and the genes that they control in a beneficial way.

The observation described above doesn't mean that a fever should be ignored when we're sick, especially if a person's temperature is very high. There is a point at which a fever changes from helping the body to hurting it. We need to take action if a fever is extreme or prolonged. If anyone has questions about the point at which a high body temperature should be treated, they should consult a health professional.

Training for a running or walking event can be a fun way to improve fitness.

Training for a running or walking event can be a fun way to improve fitness.

Possible Detrimental Effects of Strenuous Workouts

Strenuous exercise may be less beneficial for the immune system than moderate exercise.

  • In mice, repeated periods of long and intense exercise lead to an increased rate of colds and flu compared to the risk in moderate exercisers and sedentary individuals. In addition, the infections are more severe in the mice that exercise strenuously.
  • In humans, after a long and strenuous workout the activity of neutrophils, monocytes, and lymphocytes is temporarily depressed and they behave less effectively. When a lymphocyte encounters an invader it normally multiplies rapidly, a process known as lymphocyte proliferation. This process is reduced after a prolonged exercise session, especially in one that lasts at least one and a half hours and is performed at moderate to high intensity.
  • In addition to the immune system changes described above, researchers have noticed that the concentration of NK cells is decreased as well. There are also changes in the levels of specific chemicals in the immune system.
  • David Nieman, a scientist and runner, has found that people who participate in a marathon (just over twenty-six miles in length) have a depressed immune system for hours to days after the event or after an intense training session. Observational studies suggest that the runners have an increased risk of getting sick during this time period.
  • It's been observed that some of the immune system changes noticed after heavy exercise are prevented if carbohydrate is ingested during the exercise.

Some Discoveries May Be Misleading

Although a long and intense exercise session seems to temporarily increase the risk of a person getting sick, the infections that develop tend to be upper respiratory tract infections and generally aren't serious. In addition, in some people exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory tract infection after strenuous exercise, no infectious agent has been found. It's been suggested that the "infections" in these people are actually caused by increased exposure to airborne allergens and irritants.

In most people, the benefits of become fitter, stronger, and leaner from repeated and prolonged periods of strenuous exercise are considered to outweigh the disadvantage of a temporary susceptibility to a respiratory infection. The infections may be more bothersome for elite athletes who train rigorously for a long period of time. It's not a good idea for anyone to exercise to exhaustion, however. In addition, intense exercise increases the risk of injury.

It should be noted that in 2018 researchers at the University of Bath published a report claiming that the earlier negative observations about strenuous exercise on the immune system were misleading. (The report is referenced below.) For example, the researchers say that although the level of certain immune cells may decrease in some parts of the body after strenuous exercise, the change may actually be helpful. The scientists say that instead of being destroyed, the cells are moving to other parts of the body where they may be needed.

The University of Bath researchers mentioned above made a new announcement about strenuous exercise and immunity in 2020. An extract from the relevant article is shown below,

Infections are more likely to be linked to inadequate diet, psychological stress, insufficient sleep, travel and importantly, pathogen exposure at social gathering events like marathons - rather than the act of exercising itself.

The researchers say that during a pandemic like the recent coronavirus one it may be important to exercise in isolation from others in order to prevent an infection. They also say that personal hygiene after exercise (including washing the hands), following a healthy diet, and getting adequate sleep are important actions for supporting the immune system.

Monitor Exercise Effects

Everyone should judge for themselves how a particular exercise routine is affecting their body. If a routine is causing pain, exhaustion, or other problems or is making a prior heath condition worse, it should be stopped or modified and professional advice should be sought.

Fresh fruits have lots of health benefits.

Fresh fruits have lots of health benefits.

Other Factors That Can Help the Immune System

Though the ways in which exercise affects the immune system and the different effects of moderate and intense exercise on the system are still being investigated, researchers agree that moderate exercise is good for us and our immune system (except in the case of people with people with certain health problems, who should seek their doctor's advice).

There are other things that we can do to help our immune system in addition to getting appropriate exercise. These including eating a healthy diet that is filled with beneficial nutrients and is low in sugar, salt, and the less healthy fats, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake.

Helping the immune system stay in top condition is very important for preventing or weakening both minor and more serious illnesses. Boosting immunity when necessary can improve both our health and our quality of life.

References

  • Exercise guidelines from the National Health Service
  • Exercise and Immunity: Information from the National Library of Medicine
  • Sport, Exercise, and the Immune System: A detailed look at the effect of exercise on the immune system from the American Physiological Society
  • Marathon Training and Immunity: Immune system changes during marathon training from PubMed and the U.S. National Library of Medicine
  • The Elite Athlete Paradox: Repeated intense exercise builds fitness but increases susceptibility to infection from The Guardian newspaper
  • Strenous exercise may not suppress the immune system from the University of Bath
  • Regular exercise benefits immunity from the University of Bath
  • How a fever helps the immune system from Medical News Today

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 01, 2012:

Thank you very much, RTalloni. I appreciate your comment. I try to maintain a regular exercise program myself - it has so many benefits!

RTalloni on September 01, 2012:

Packed full of helpful, motivating information with delightful photos, this will be helpful to everyone. Thanks for a good reminder of the importance of building and keeping our immunities up through exercise.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 27, 2012:

Thanks for the visit and the votes, Mama Kim 8. It is amazing how many benefits moderate exercise has!

Aloe Kim on August 26, 2012:

Voted up, useful and interesting. It's certainly amazing what a little exercise can do.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2012:

Thank you very much, teaches. I appreciate your comment and the vote. I try to exercise regularly, too. Improving the health of the immune system is an important goal!

Dianna Mendez on August 24, 2012:

I am glad that I do have an exercise regimen that helps to combat the many harmful dangers you list. Building immunity through exercise is one way to extend our life. You have done an excellent job in helping others to see the benefit of exercise for healthy reasons. Voted way up!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2012:

Thank you, tnvrstar. I appreciate your comment and visit!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2012:

Thank you so much for the comment, the vote and the share, Tom! I agree with you - the immune system is very important and we should give it all the help that we can!

tnvrstar from doha, qatar on August 24, 2012:

I enjoyed reading your article. It was really helpful.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on August 24, 2012:

Hi my friend, the Immune System is very important to us so anything we can do to keep it working right or better we should do. Enjoyed reading your well written hub !

Well done and vote up !!! SHARING !

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 23, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, Bill. I try to exercise as much as I can by walking and hiking. It's fun, and it's helpful for maintaining health too!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 23, 2012:

Great suggestions and facts. I am a huge believer in exercise; it definitely has kept old age from creeping up on me.