Your body is constantly working to keep you healthy and free of infection.
The great thing is that you don’t even have to think about it. Like many of the human body’s amazing functions, your immune system works behind the scenes 24/7.
There are things you can do to support your immune system, potentially cutting down on the number of sick days you have each year.
Keep reading to learn more about how exercise can boost your immune system, and which ones you should try.
How the immune system works
Your immune system helps protect you from potentially harmful invaders like viruses, bacteria, toxins, and fungi. It is made up of several different organs and cells designed to protect you against these pathogens.
The immune system you’re born with is your innate immune system. The other part of your immune system is your adaptive immune system. Your adaptive immune system develops as you’re exposed to different pathogens and your immune system develops antibodies against them.
The primary organs involved in your immune system’s defense line are:
- Adenoids. Two glands located at the back of your nasal passage.
- Bone marrow. A soft, spongy tissue in the middle of your bones.
- Lymph nodes. Small organs located throughout your body and connect via the lymphatic vessels.
- Lymphatic vessels. A network of channels throughout the body that carries lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) throughout your body.
- Peyer’s patches. Lymphoid tissue in your small intestine.
- Spleen. A fist-sized organ located in your abdominal cavity.
- Thymus. Two lobes in front of your trachea behind your breastbone.
- Tonsils. Two oval masses in the back of your throat.
Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that helps fight infection. Specific immune cells that work to fight infection include T-cells and natural killer cells (NK cells). Your lymphocyte count should be high when you’re fighting an infection. Low levels of lymphocytes can temporarily occur after an illness or after vigorous-intensity exercise.
Your immune system is meant to keep you healthy. However, there are times when your immune system can attack healthy parts of your body. Some immune system disorders include having a weak immune system (immune suppression), autoimmune disorders, and allergies.
The connection between exercise and your immune system
Physical activity is correlated with an improved immune system response and lower incidences of infections. Research shows that physical activity lasting no more than 45 minutes at a moderate intensity is beneficial to your immune system. High-intensity exercise of a long duration can hinder your immune function and cause upper respiratory infections.
While it’s clear that exercise benefits your immune system, the exact reason is unclear. Some theories of why exercise helps your immune system include:
- Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of your lungs and airways.
- Exercise causes changes in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). White blood cells are your body’s primary immune cells that fight disease.
- The brief rise in body temperature from exercise may prevent bacteria from growing and help your body fight off an infection (similar to a fever).
- Physical activity slows down the release of stress hormones – lower stress hormones may protect against illness.
Exercise increases the number of cytokines in your blood. Cytokines are proteins that signal your immune system to work. Cytokines also work to control the level of inflammation in your body. Some cytokines are pro-inflammatory.
Physical activity helps reduce inflammation in your body, which might also play a role in your immune health. Many of the most common chronic diseases are linked with inflammation, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Interestingly, intense exercise training tends to increase the number of pro-inflammatory cytokines compared to moderate exercise, further supporting the fact that moderate-intensity exercise is more advantageous to your immune function than vigorous exercise.
Exercises that can boost your immune system
Studies overwhelmingly cite walking as a beneficial exercise to improve your immune response. Walking is low-impact, easily accessible, and doesn’t cost anything.
Walking for 30-45 minutes at least five days per week can improve your immune system health as well as your overall health.
Hobbies like gardening, golfing, horseback riding, and many more all count as exercise. Any aerobic exercise training that increases your heart rate and gets you breathing a bit harder than normal is beneficial. Increased heart rate means increased circulation, which is one of the theories as to why physical activity benefits your immune response.
Active hobbies you enjoy are especially beneficial because you’re more likely to stick with them and get regular exercise.
Spending time outside on sunny days
Going for a walk, run, or swimming outdoors when the sun is shining can also benefit your immune system. Exposure to sunlight helps your body make vitamin D.
Vitamin D is essential for your immune function. Vitamin D deficiency is linked with increased susceptibility to infection as well as autoimmune disorders.
If you spend a lot of time indoors, aim to get outside for a daily walk, especially on sunny days. Not only will the fresh air and physical activity help boost your mood, but your immune system will benefit from vitamin D.
You don’t need access to a full set of weights or a gym to strength train. Strength training improves strength and supports lean muscle mass.
Studies show that strength training, like cardiovascular exercise training, can help support a healthy immune response.
Here are some easy strength training exercises you can do at home.
- Squats: First, read up on how to do a proper squat to avoid injury. If you haven’t done squats before, start with ten squats (repetitions) and then rest for a minute before repeating that same sequence (set). Try three sets of ten reps and then build on that, depending on your physical fitness.
- Planks: Your abdominal muscles make up your core, which is important for supporting your back. Traditional sit-ups can strain your lower back. Instead, try planking for 60 seconds with a 60-second break in between. Repeat that sequence a few times and build on it over time, depending on your fitness level. Planking also works your arms, shoulders, legs, and glutes.
One of the best (and scientifically proven) ways to boost your immune response is free and easily accessible – regular moderate exercise.
Physical activity is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle and helps to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Regular physical activity is correlated with improved immune function.
Aim to include regular moderate physical activity in your lifestyle to reap the immune system benefits.