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Exercise Enhances the Immune System

Exercise Enhances the Immune System

There has been a lot of focus recently on the coronavirus and the potential for it to impact the health of thousands if not millions of people worldwide. While there are many uncertainties at this time, there is a lot we do know about preventing infection.  On the topic of prevention, we think about things like washing our hands, covering our mouth when we cough or sneeze, not sharing dishes and food utensils, and avoiding contact with items that may carry germs.

Another way to consider prevention is through enhancing your immune system. This can be accomplished by improving certain lifestyle factors. These factors can include eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, and engaging in regular exercise.

The relationship between exercise and immune function has been studied extensively. This topic can be complicated because there are many facets to both exercise and immunity. But in a very general way, it is true that moderate, regular exercise decreases the risk of infection compared to sedentary behavior. We do not know the exact mechanism for this effect, however there are several theories. One is that the movement of air in and out of the lungs reduces the likelihood of becoming infected with a cold or the flu. Another mechanism is the slight increase in body temperature associated with exercise, which can inhibit the growth of bacteria. The most widely studied effect is the impact of exercise on white blood cells (WBC). Exercise has been shown to increase the number of circulating WBC’s, which in turn are our major defense against infection.

A note of caution is that intense exercise can have the opposite effect: it has been known to increase the risk of infection. For athletes that engage in heavy bouts of exercise, getting plenty of rest between exercise intervals is important.

It is often said that if we could put exercise in a pill form, it would be the single most prescribed medicine in the world. Immune function can be added to the long list of health benefits of exercise.

Marcia Spoto PT, DC 

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