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Does Working Out Boost Your Immune System? Everything You Need to Know About Staying Healthy by Staying Strong

how does exercise affect the immune system

No one wants to get knocked down by an illness.

You know your immune system is what protects you from getting sick.

But what are the best ways to boost your immune system to help you avoid catching a cold or upper respiratory disease?

You’ve heard that exercise can help you in a variety of ways, but you’re curious— can working out boost your immune system too?

In this article, we’ll show you:

  1. How exercise can boost your immune system
  2. What exercises work best; and 
  3. Other ways to keep yourself healthy and strong.

Table of Contents

What You Need to Know About Your Immune System

Your immune system is constantly on alert looking out for intruders or signs of danger.

The primary form of defense is the white blood cell (also called leukocytes). The white blood cells circulate constantly through the bloodstream, screening for unfamiliar cells.

One type of white blood cells, lymphocytes, create proteins called antibodies which lock onto foreign substances (called antigens) and help destroy them.

Antibodies linger in the body in case the same antigens return in the future.

Does Exercise Help Boost the Immune System?

Overall, we know some of the best practices for keeping ourselves healthy.

Frequent hand-washing, disinfecting common surfaces, and even eating healthy can all benefit our immune systems.

But even with all of this understanding we still have the question “Does working out boost your immune system?”

Let’s look at the effects of working out on the immune system:

A 2019 scientific review in the Journal of Sports and Health showed that exercise, primarily walking, but also including other forms of exercise lasting less than an hour, produced an immune response.

While immune cells are always circulating in the blood system, they tend to concentrate in lymphoid tissues and organs such as the spleen where the body takes care of eliminating bacterial and viral cells that can cause disease.

During exercise, however, the number of immune cells in the bloodstream increases as blood flow increases throughout the body.

In the scientific review, participants who took part in a forty-five-minute brisk walk had elevated levels of immune cells in their blood flow for up to three hours after the exercise was completed.

Let In Motion O.C. help you determine the best level of exercise to improve your fitness and boost your immune system.

Which Exercise is Best for the Immune System?

The immune system is very responsive.

Studies show that the degree of immune response is in connection with the physiological stress of the workload.

In other words, the length of time with increased immune protection correlates to the intensity of the exercise.

With this in mind, consistency is actually the key. Unfortunately, you can’t expect to get a perfect immune system by just working out only every once in a while.

Your immune system relies on consistent exercise.

If this is your first time going to the gym in a while we’re happy to help you ease back into a routine. Our training coaches at In Motion O.C. would be happy to build you a custom routine for coming back to the gym.

How Does Walking Increase Immunity?

We can all thank our lucky stars because walking, one of the most popular forms of exercise, does in fact increase the health of your immune system.

A study published in 2011 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine studied 1000 adults and their walking routines.

The study found that adults who walked at least five days per week had 43% fewer upper respiratory infections than those who did not walk over the course of the 12-week study.

How Much is Too Much When it Comes to Exercise?

Most of us are not in danger of hurting our immune system by working out too much. It takes rather an extreme amount of exercise to actually hinder our immune system.

However, if you are training for the Olympics or running a half-marathon every day for several months, then this might be something you should speak with your doctor about.

A 1990 study of LA marathon runners found that they were at a higher risk of infectious episodes during training directly before and during recovery time directly after running the marathon.

High-intensity exercise for more than an hour at a time is not the best idea when trying to improve your immune system.

The Effects of Too Much Exercise on the Immune System

Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing.

Taking on too much stress by exercising too hard, too frequently, or for too long can actually depress your immune system.

Exactly the opposite of what you may have been trying to achieve.

Exercising too much overworks the central nervous system and causes it to become fatigued, making it easier for you to become sick.

does working out boost your immune system opt in

Should You Exercise When You’re Sick?

When you’re sick you might be of one of two minds:

Option 1, I don’t feel well enough so I shouldn’t go to the gym.

Option 2, I’m sick so I should boost my immune system by working out at the gym.

  • Option 1: Staying home might be more considerate to your fellow gym-goers if you could be infectious. You could also opt for mild to moderate exercise outside of the gym if you feel up to doing less strenuous activities.
  • Option 2: Moderate exercise does indeed boost your immune system, so if you feel well enough then going to the gym might help you feel better.

Exercising when you have a cold and no fever isn’t bad for you, but if you have symptoms anywhere below the neck (for example body aches, GI issues, etc.) then you should stay away from the gym.

How Long Should You Wait Before Hitting the Gym After an Illness?

Depending on how long an illness has put you out of commission you might be ready to jump back into full exercise mode.

If that’s the case, then you can go back to the gym as soon as you feel ready to go.

However, there’s no benefit to going to the gym when you are too exhausted to put in the necessary effort.

Taking an extra day to rest and recover is never a bad thing when your body has been through stress such as an illness.

If you don’t feel quite ready to go back to your regular routine, getting mild to moderate exercise by…

  • Taking a walk
  • Enjoying a light jog; or 
  • Going for an easy bike ride

…are good alternatives to ease back into it.

what can you eat to boost your immune system

What Can You Eat to Boost Your Immune System?

You can boost all your body’s normal functions, including your immune system, by eating foods high in vitamins and minerals.

Fuel your body with plenty of fresh, unprocessed foods that are low in fat and high in proteins and carbohydrates.

3 Ways to Use Food to Boost Immunity

Your body depends on the right amount and right types of food to create much-needed energy as well as keep your immune system in tip-top shape.

Follow these three recommendations to maximize the benefits of what you eat.

#1: Eat the Right Amount of Food</4>

If you’re focusing on boosting your immune system then it might not be the right time to go on an extreme diet or cut calories to an extreme amount.

Dieters consuming less than 1,200 calories per day may suffer from reduced immune function.

On the other hand, overeating also compromises the immune system.

Obesity is linked to an increased rate of infectious disease. Obese people are more likely to contract coronary heart disease, which has been linked to hormonal alterations in immune function.

#2: Limit Fats in Your Diet

The immune system relies on white blood cells because they produce antibodies that combat:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Other disease-causing agents

Did you know that vegetarians have been shown to have more effective white blood cells when compared to non-vegetarians?

This is because vegetarians tend to have a higher intake of vitamins and a lower intake of fat than non-vegetarians.

Fats and oils not only compromise white blood cell activities, but they are also believed to alter the gut microbiota that aid in immunity.

#3: Eat Foods Rich in Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants

Some of the best immune-boosting foods to help keep you healthy include:

  • Vitamin A (Beta Carotene): This antioxidant is found in sweet potatoes, carrots, and green leafy vegetables.
  • Vitamin C: This antioxidant is found in red peppers, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, mangoes, lemons, and other fruits and vegetables.
  • Vitamin E: This antioxidant is found in nuts, seeds, spinach, and broccoli.
  • Zinc: This mineral is found in nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, beans, and lentils.

how does exercise affect the immune system

Boost Your Health With Better Sleep and Stress Management

As mentioned earlier, working out when you are sick can actually hurt your immune system. The reason for that is that your body is already under stress because of the illness.

Working out while your body is stressed might magnify the negative effect.

How can you combat this?

One of the easiest ways to combat stress is to get more sleep.

Getting enough sleep helps your body reduce stress and allow your immune system to function properly.

Have you tried a writing stress journal?

By tracking your emotions as you experience them, you can gain more control over your emotional responses and also track trends over time.

Other helpful methods of stress management can include:

  • Laughing at a comedy show
  • Meditating
  • Reading a book
  • Petting your dog (or someone else’s dog, with permission)
  • Hugging a friend
  • Doing a low-stress hobby
  • Completing some breathing exercises

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Breathing Exercises to Increase Immunity

Exercise boosts your immune system partially because it stimulates blood circulation as well as the circulation of disease-fighting white blood cells.

Deep breathing positively impacts the cardiovascular system. Deep breathing exercises have been shown to reduce the level of cortisol, commonly referred to as the stress hormone, in the bloodstream.

As mentioned previously, reducing stress can have a positive impact on your immune system.

Stay Healthy: Talk to a Fitness Expert at In Motion O.C. Today

The In Motion O.C. team is here for you.

Both our fitness coaches and physical therapists are here to help improve your fitness and to promote a healthy lifestyle.

We encourage people to visit us not only for physical therapy to help them through a recovery but also for guidance when they want to try to improve their quality of life.

We want our clients to build not only strength but also a well-rounded understanding of functional fitness and health.

Contact us for a fitness consultation.

In Motion O.C.