Socially distance, wash your hands, wear a mask and exercise! As athletes we all exercise for the benefits, such as improving cardiovascular health, lowering blood pressure, and body weight control. And now, more than ever, we need exercise to ward off viral illnesses.

What is the relationship between physical activity and our immune system?

Exercise directly promotes good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body and do their job efficiently. Highly specialized immune cells (natural killer cells and T cells) attack pathogens (like viruses) and wipes them out.

David Nieman, Dr.Ph, a professor of biology at Appalachian State University, says that people typically have a small number of immune cells circulating around the body. “Exercise really is a housekeeping activity, where it helps the immune system patrol the body and detect and evade bacteria viruses,” Nieman says. He explains that the more frequent a housekeeper cleans, the cleaner the house will look as opposed to cleaning once for the first time.

If exercise is seldom and sporadic, you cannot expect to have an illness-clearing immune system. Consistent exercise will better prepare your immune system to wipe out viruses and germs.

What is the ideal type of exercise?

Nieman primarily focused on studying aerobic activity such as walking, running or cycling to boost the immune system. If walking, he says that for most people pushing the pace to at least a 15-minute mile led to promising results in his studies. For other forms of exercise, he suggests targeting 60% of your V02max or 70% of your max heart rate.

What is the ideal amount of exercise?

In a Nieman 2019 study, participants who took a brisk 45-minute walk experienced greater circulation of immune cells for up to three hours after the walk. The response from the immune system will eventually go away and that’s why you should focus on consistent exercise. Just like housekeeping, it will all add up!

According to a 2011 Nieman study, aerobic exercise five or more days a week can lower upper respiratory tract infections over a 12-week period by more than 40%.

The bottom line is that consistent, moderate exercise will help boost the immune system by promoting “housecleaning” circulation of immune cells. Just don’t overdo it as longer and more intensive exercise can put you in a stressful state that can lead to immune system dysfunction.

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