Published on 17 Jun 2020
You know how to protect yourself against the novel coronavirus by now—frequent handwashing, social distancing, and, to an extent, maintaining a balanced diet to keep your body as healthy as possible. But another important aspect of supporting your overall health can also come in handy right now to boost your immune system: regular exercise.
Of course, with schedules all over the place and gyms closed, lacing up your sneakers for a run can sometimes feel like the last thing you want to do. But the simple act of moving your body more can provide a powerful tool for fighting infection. The catch? Not all exercise is entirely helpful to your immune system—especially with a new viral threat lurking outside.
To explain the connection between exercise and immunity, we scoured the science and spoke with experts who have studied exercise’s effect on the immune system. Here's how to make the most of your workouts for your overall health, particularly during a pandemic.
So, can exercise boost your immune system?
Even with shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders set up across the country, top officials like the CDC and WHO still encourage regular exercise—and for good reason. In addition to improving your mental health, a 2019 scientific review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that exercise can improve your immune response, lower illness risk, and reduce inflammation.
The study looked at “acute exercise,” meaning that of moderate to vigorous intensity lasting less than an hour. (The study mainly examined walking, but that could also mean an elliptical workout, a spin class, or even a run.) Study author David Nieman, DrPH, a professor in the department of biology at Appalachian State University and director of the university's Human Performance Laboratory, tells Health that typically, people only have a small number of immune cells circulating around the body. Those cells prefer to hang out in lymphoid tissues and organs like the spleen, where your body kills viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms that cause disease.
Because exercise increases blood and lymph flow as your muscles contract, it also increases the circulation of immune cells, making them roam the body at a higher rate and at higher numbers, says Nieman. Specifically, exercise helps to recruit highly specialized immune cells—such as natural killer cells and T cells—find pathogens (like viruses) and wipe them out. In Nieman's 2019 review, participants who took a 45-minute brisk walk experienced this uptick of immune cells floating around the body for up to three hours after the walk, Nieman explains.
While you do get an immediate response from your immune system when you exercise, that will eventually go away—unless, that is, you keep working out consistently. “If you go out for 45 minutes of exercise the next day, this all happens again,” Nieman says. “It all adds up as time goes on.” In fact, another study from Nieman and his team—this one published in 2011 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine—found that those who did aerobic exercise five or more days of the week lowered the number of upper respiratory tract infections (like the common cold) over a 12-week period by more than 40%.
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