Regardless of whether you’re staying home or not, exercise is known to be good for health. It helps you to get better sleep, regulates your weight, reduces risk of heart disease, and boosts your mood and energy. Aside from these benefits, exercise can also help you to maintain a healthy and robust immune system! We take a look at how exercise affects your immune response, as well as the type of exercise that is most beneficial for immunity.
Over the past 40 years, researchers in the field of “psychoneuroimmunology” have shown that our mental state can affect our health. A psychologically stressful event, such as an exam, can temporarily lower the immune cells that our bodies produce and leave us more susceptible to infection. If there is long-term or chronic stress, our immunity is shown to be compromised as well.
Exercise can counter the effects of stress by lowering the levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals, which are responsible for the positive feelings that usually accompany a workout. These have the combined effects of elevating mood and reducing stress, in turn bolstering your immune system.
The act of exercising elicits a natural response from our immune system. When we are at rest, general immune cells patrol our bloodstreams searching for foreign invaders that need to be dealt with, such as viruses and bacteria. When our heart rate is raised for a period of time, for example through exercise, our body interprets this as a stressor. In response, it mobilizes the big guns, specialized immune cells which spread out through our bloodstreams in higher numbers than when we are at rest.
This higher proportion of specialized immune cells circulating in our bloodstreams allows for intruders to be more easily detected and eliminated. After their job is done in the bloodstream, these specialized immune cells then move to areas of the body which are at higher risk of being infected, such as the lungs, to stand guard. The whole process is only temporary, usually lasting for a few hours, after which the level of immune cells declines.
This natural response happens after each session of moderate to vigourous exercise. In a concept similar to housekeeping, regular exercise is important for the consistent release of these specialized immune cells to ensure that our bodies are being routinely scoured for any pathogens.
Inflammation can be good or bad. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s response to injury or infection, causing redness, swelling or a fever. This is a natural response and aids in the healing process. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is when your immune system is constantly stimulated and has a prolonged response. This could be due to several factors, including certain diseases, smoking, obesity, alcohol and stress. This chronic immune response can cause damage to healthy tissues, leading to diseases such as diabetes, heart problems and cancer.
Consistent exercise helps to regulate the immune system by reducing chronic inflammation in the body. One of the ways it does this is by reducing the number of inflammatory chemicals in the body. Exercise also allows us to better utilize glucose and control the amount of fat in the body, which in turn reduces chronic inflammation and maintains a healthy immune system.
Remember that too much of a good thing can be bad! Current studies show that the benefits from exercising come from moderate aerobic exercises. Long-term heavy, strenuous exercises such as marathons can actually have negative impacts on your immune system instead. Healthy adults are generally encouraged to have 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.
This is especially applicable to us during these uncertain times. As we have mentioned, many aspects of our mental wellbeing can impact our immunity. In a similar way to stress, depression and anxiety can lead to a weakened immune system and make us more susceptible to infections.
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