As humans, we’ve gradually evolved into living more sedentary lifestyles. Our ancestors were always on the move gathering food and hunting. Their diets were simple: mostly plant-based and supplemented with the meat they hunted. At that time, there were no processed or sugary foods. Due to their intensive lifestyle, our ancestors became naturally strong and fit. They were also healthier—their bodies were doing exactly what they are designed for.
Since the Agricultural Revolution, our lifestyles have changed dramatically. For the first time, we are able to live in more populated areas, towns, and cities. As we’ve begun to live in larger groups, our occupations have become more and more geared towards specialized skills. People gradually began to transition from doing physically intensive labor to working behind a desk.
The question is: Is this change a bad thing? Not necessarily. Humans have reached a higher potential and are able to produce fascinating and valuable work. However, this does mean that we need to keep a closer eye on our health. Instead of getting fit naturally through our lifestyles, we now need to work to make sure that our bodies get the nutrition and level of physical activity we need to be healthy.
Let’s take a closer look at exercise and the immune system and the many benefits.
How Does Exercise Affect the Immune System?
Exercise is very important for your health. In fact, studies have shown that exercise is a crucial factor in how well your body is able to function. Exercising isn’t just important for staying strong and fit—it improves several internal functions in your body without you even realizing it. In fact, one of the most important things exercise does is boost your immune system.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is one of the 10 leading causes of death in developed countries and is responsible for 1.9 million deaths around the world every year.
On the flip side, the benefits of exercising extend past simply being in good physical shape. Exercising has long-term benefits for your health, including:
- Helping your body fight against cardiac aging
- Maintaining a low resting heart rate
- Stabilizing blood pressure
- Combating the onset of diabetes
- Maintaining a healthy cholesterol balance
- Fighting osteoporosis
- Reducing stress, anxiety, and depression
Studies show that physical activity increases life expectancy. It also lowers the risk of developing conditions like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Physical activity also improves mental health and mood. Exercising improves the health of your muscles, bones, and joints and decreases the weakening effects of age.
Additionally, high-intensity exercises like interval training (HIIT) reduce lymphocyte oxidative stress and reduce antigen-induced proliferation . Long-distance exercise helps increase the number of circulating immune cells that flood the bloodstream with neutrophils, monocytes, and lymphocytes like T cells and B cells. This means that exercise is a physical stress that increases the number of immune cells circulating in the blood. So, exercise not only makes you physically stronger, it also boosts your immune system, making your body better at fighting off disease.
In a study, after a vigorous, steady workout lasting for 45–60 minutes, a dramatic influx of natural killer cells rose. This appears to be a highly specialized and systematic response that your body only produces under this circumstance. It also indicates that exercise serves a unique function for your immune system: it redeploys immune cells to peripheral tissues (e.g. mucosal surfaces) to conduct immune surveillance. This means that these immune cells identify and eradicate other cells that have been infected with pathogens—invasive substances like viruses or bacteria—or are damaged in a way that is potentially harmful. This finding has been coined the acute stress/exercise immune-enhancement hypothesis.
This is a lot of information, so let’s recap. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that, after a few hours of intensive exercise, lymphocytes and other immune cells become hyper-vigilant and are able to detect pathogens faster than usual. Furthermore, exercise mobilizes these lymphocytes, allowing them to circulate through the body quicker. This enables them to reach and protect peripheral tissues in the body that are less visited by immune cells.
Can Too Much Exercise Weaken the Immune System?
Despite the general consensus that exercise boosts the immune system, there is also some evidence that too much exercise can weaken it. Some athletes who train intensively develop colds and other respiratory diseases more easily. However, these studies are in the minority, and there is far less evidence to support this hypothesis. Still, we recommend that you learn about both arguments so you can come to your own decision.
What we can easily conclude is that unless you are a high intensity athlete, there is no question that exercise will only help your immune system, not harm it.
At What Age Is Your Immune System Strongest?
We’ve already established that exercise enhances the immune system for the average person, but is this true for your whole life? We think so. If you’re older, exercise can seem daunting—it gets more and more tiring and you’re increasingly susceptible to injury. Certainly, proceed with caution—don’t push your body past its limit or do exercises that make you uncomfortable. However, the immune system boost that comes from exercising can be extremely beneficial for seniors as they are at greatest risk of infection.
Comparing the effects of exercise on younger and older people is difficult, partly due to other age-associated changes the body naturally undergoes. However, if enough variables are accounted for, it is possible to come to some generalized conclusions.
For example, a recent exercise training study shows that for both young and middle-aged adults, 10 weeks of moderate to intensive cycling training can help immune cells fend off pathogens regardless of age.
In addition, no studies report that immune competency is impaired due to exercise. Altogether, we can conclude that despite declining physical ability and immune competency, seniors still benefit immensely from the immune-boost exercise gives them. Indeed, frequent participation in exercise across your life may create long-term immune benefits that persist even into old age.
Overall, it’s established that elderly individuals experience a gradual immune-deterioration over time and therefore are at an increased risk of developing an infection. However, as outlined in “Regular Physical Activity and Frequent Exercise Augment Aspects of Immune Competency Across the Lifespan,” exercise can be a potent stimulus of immune function and can help combat the negative effects of old age on the immune system.
How Much Exercise Do I Need to Boost My Immune System?
The CDC states that significant health benefits can be obtained from a moderate amount of daily physical activity, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking or 15 minutes of running daily. Through a modest increase in daily activity, most Americans can greatly improve their health and quality of life. People who can maintain a regular exercise regimen that is longer or more vigorous are likely to get even greater benefits (without overdoing of course).
More than 60% of American adults do not exercise regularly. In fact, 25% of all American adults are not active at all. These facts are not any better for our children, either. Nearly half of American youths between the ages of 12 and 21 do not engage in regular vigorous activity, and participation in physical education classes declined sharply from 42% in 1991 to 25% in 1995 among high school students.
Interestingly, there also appear to be some generational differences in physical activity levels. Levels of physical activity tend to decline dramatically with age as our lives become more and more busy with work, marriage, and kids.
All of this highlights how we must remain vigilant when it comes to taking care of our health and our children's health. It can be difficult for sure—but it can be done, and it’s worth it!
Which Exercise Is Best for the Immune System?
We could make a list of sports or activities that are best for the immune system, but the fact is, they are all beneficial in different ways. As long as you stay active, get your heart rate up for a certain amount of time and move around, you’ll enjoy many health benefits of exercise. There’s no one activity that’s better than others; what’s more important is that you enjoy the form of exercise you’re doing so you’ll stay motivated and continue it regularly.
Tips for How to Structure Your Workout
Here’s an example of a general workout that’s great for the immune system and also meets your daily recommended amount of 30 minutes.
- Warm up for 5 minutes with some stretching and easy, full-body movement.
- Do 15 minutes of endurance. If you have a staircase in your home, running up and down can be a great form of cardio, but be careful not to fall! Use your neighborhood, nearby park, or even your own front yard to your advantage—going for walks or a quick run outdoors is a great way to get some fresh air and exercise. If you happen to have workout equipment like an exercise bike, stepper, or treadmill, do 4-5mph with a little resistance. If you live in a smaller place or in the city, try yoga and pilates, two great forms of exercise that don’t take up too much space.
- Do 5 minutes of strength-training such as push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups or weight exercises.
- Cool down for 5 minutes with some more stretchingor meditation.
- Relax—drink some water and give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve earned it!
Does the Immune System Get Better with Age?
At birth, acquired (specific) immunity is not fully developed. However, newborns have some antibodies from their mothers that cross the placenta during pregnancy. These antibodies protect them against infection until their own immune system is fully developed. Breastfed newborns also receive antibodies from their mothers through breast milk.
As we age, the immune system gradually becomes less effective:
- For one thing, it partly loses its ability to distinguish between internal and external substances (e.g. it loses the ability to identify foreign antigens). As a result, autoimmune diseases are more likely to develop later in life.
- Macrophages (which ingest bacteria and other foreign cells) become less effective at destroying bacteria, cancer cells, and other pathogens. Though they are still able to break down these pathogens, the process occurs much more slowly. This may partly explain why cancer is more common in older people.
- T lymphocytes (memory cells that are responsible for recognizing pathogens they have already encountered) react less quickly to these pathogens.
- White blood cell production also decreases with age. White blood cells are responsible for responding to new antigens and helping the body stimulate an immune response. This means that when an elderly person encounters a new pathogen, their body is less able to remember and defend them from it if they are exposed again.
- Older people also produce less complement proteins, which help destroy pathogens, than younger people.
Although the amount of antibodies produced in response to an antigen remains roughly the same, the ability of antibodies to bind to the antigen—a structure on the surface of a pathogen that the immune system is able to detect—is reduced. This may explain why pneumonia, influenza, infective endocarditis, or tetanus are more common in the elderly population. It may also partly explain why vaccines are less effective in older people, which is why it is important for older people to get booster vaccines (when available). These changes in immune function contribute to a greater sensitivity of the elderly to certain infections and cancers.
To summarize, exercise is an essential part of a strong immune system. No matter your age, your immune system will benefit from exercise. More research needs to be conducted to conclude whether or not intensive exercise inhibits the immune system. Currently, there is not enough to come to any concrete conclusions.
What we can say for certain is that you know your body best. If you feel uncomfortable, fatigued, or are in pain due to your exercise regimen, consider scaling back. On the other hand, if you don’t exercise much, try setting aside a few minutes each day to work out. Remember, what matters is that you do what you need to to live the happiest, healthiest life possible. You deserve it!
Essential Oils for Immune System Strength
Besides exercise and diet, a great way to strengthen your immune system is essential oils. Essential oils are effective in all ages, even your kids. Teramune’s immune supplement is specially formulated to protect you against infection and relieve any symptoms. Our products are organic, vegan, and perfect for the whole family, including your kids. Enjoy 20 drops in your favorite 4oz beverage and drink your way to better wellness!
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