Exercising to Build the Immune System

We have all heard the advice: one of the best things we can do to stay healthy, besides a balanced diet, is to stay physically active. This bit of advice has been around for ages, but until recently, researchers did not have much data to support the idea. A systematic review of 16 studies find that people who work out seem to have stronger resistance to infections than those who don’t, but the idea still needs further research.1

Scientists have studied the idea of exercising to boost immunity and have turned up some preliminary evidence about a link between regular exercise and better immune defenses. In 2019, a scientific review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found exercise can improve the immune response, lower illness risk, and reduce inflammation.2

More recently, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at 16 studies of people who were physically active and found that exercising was associated with lower risk of infection.2 What type of exercise can help boost the immune system? Research suggests moderate-intensity exercise is best.3 In general, exercising at a moderate to vigorous intensity for 60 minutes or less is optimal for immune-boosting benefits.

Exercise doesn’t have to mean running or going on a long hike; start small and adjust the routine as needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise weekly.4 However, there is no hard and fast rule about how much exercise will impact the immune system. Some movement is better than none!

  1. Zheng Q, Cui G, Chen J, Gao H, Wei Y, Uede T, Chen Z, Diao H. Regular exercise enhances the immune response against microbial antigens through up-regulation of toll-like receptor signaling pathways. Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry. 2015;37(2):735-46.
  2. Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2019 May 1;8(3):201-17.
  3. Ezzatvar Y, Ramírez-Vélez R, Izquierdo M, et al. Physical activity and risk of infection, severity and mortality: a systematic review and non-linear dose–response meta-analysis of data from 1 853 610 adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2022;56:1188-1193.
  4. How much physical activity do adults need? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last accessed: 2022 Oct. Online: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
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