Exercise and Immunity

We have all heard that exercise is good for us.  Even during this period of social isolation, we are being given permission to leave the house once per day for exercise.  But do we really know why? Perhaps if we understood a little more ‘why’ it could fuel our motivation…. even just a little.

According to medlineplus.gov there are four main benefits to the immune system of participating in regular aerobic exercise.

  1. Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness.
  2. Exercise causes a change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body’s immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. However, no one knows whether these changes help prevent infections.
  3. The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature rise may help the body fight infection better. (This is similar to what happens when you have a fever.)
  4. Exercise slows down the release of stress hormones. Some stress increases the chance of illness. Lower stress hormones may protect against illness.

But what and how much exercise should you do to positively affect the immune system?  The answer to this is debatable / individual / the million-dollar question….so I will give you my opinion!

Aerobic exercise is good.  This is a level of activity which increases your heart rate and body temperature and where you could, just about, maintain a conversation.  The closer you are to forcing out a few words, rather than giving long detailed descriptions; in the conversation, the more fitness benefits will be reaped.  Working much harder than this level, for a prolonged amount of time will increase the stress response. As suggested above, high stress levels can have a negative effect on the immune system.

In addition to these physiological effects on the immune system are the psychological benefits.  Aerobic physical activity releases a number of endorphins which boost mood. Whilst out for a run – particularly alone – you have an opportunity to mull things over, sort out problems, decrease stress and generally set the world straight in your own head.  The positive effects on mental health of aerobic exercise are numerous. Here’s a quote from mentalhealth.org.uk:

Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.

In terms of how much exercise should you be doing? This depends on a number of factors;

  • What level of physical activity do you currently participate in?
  • What time do you have available to participate?
  • What are your goals relating to physical activity?

Anything is better than nothing – so just get out there and do something even if it is just for 10 minutes.

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