Regular exercise benefits immunity

Exercise can help support immunity

As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced, which in turn contributes to more infections and more cancer. As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related conditions. While some people age healthily, the conclusion of many studies is that, compared with younger people, the elderly are more likely to contract infectious diseases and, even more importantly, more likely to die from them. One of the biggest contributors to this is the lack of exercise.

Being in isolation without access to gyms and sports clubs should not mean people stop exercising, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bath. Keeping up regular, daily exercise at a time when much of the world is going into isolation will play an important role in helping to maintain a healthy immune system.

In a recent article, Dr James Turner and Dr John Campbell from the University of Bath’s Department for Health, debated whether the immune system can change in a negative or positive way after exercise, and whether or not athletes get more infections than the general population.

There has long been a public misconception that some forms of exercise can suppress the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to deal with outside threats, like the novel coronavirus. But there’s a substantial body of research that shows exercise actually benefits our immune system.

And epidemiological studies show that people who are active get significantly fewer upper respiratory tract infections per year than less-active people. Research agrees that exercise doesn’t suppress immunity – instead, it may help the immune system function better. At a basic level, the immune system provides three main lines of protection. Exercise helps maintain the normal function of each of these.

Primary causes of infections:

The article concludes that infections are more likely to be linked to :

  • Inadequate diet
  • Psychological stress
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Travel
  • Pathogen exposure at social gathering (social distancing)

These factors were more important than the act of exercising itself. They also debated whether the immune system can change in a negative or positive way after exercise, and whether or not athletes get more infections than the general population. The article concludes that infections are more likely to be linked to inadequate diet, psychological stress, insufficient sleep, travel and importantly, pathogen exposure at social gathering events like marathons — rather than the act of exercising itself.

Regular moderate intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, running or cycling is recommended, with the aim of achieving 150 minutes per week. Longer, more vigorous exercise would not be harmful, but if capacity to exercise is restricted due to a health condition or disability, the message is to ‘move more’ and that ‘something is better than nothing’. Resistance exercise has clear benefits for maintaining muscles, which also helps movement.

At this current time in particular, the researchers underline the importance of maintaining good personal hygiene when exercising, including thoroughly washing hands following exercise. To give the body its best chance at fighting off infections, they suggest in addition to doing regular exercise, people need to pay attention to the amount of sleep they get and maintain a healthy diet, that is energy balanced to account for energy that is used during exercise. They hope that this debate article will lead to a wave of new research exploring the beneficial effects of exercise on immune function.

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