By Sarah Hughes
We all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that regular exercise is a great way to improve our general health, right? We know that exercise is good for our heart and lungs, helps us maintain a healthy weight, decreases our risk of osteoporosis and certain cancers, and also boosts our mental health. The evidence is overwhelming that taking the recommended amount of regular exercise will improve our general health in the long term.
But what about using exercise as a tool to aid our health in the short term? If you find you’re always struggling with coughs, colds, and viruses; you might be interested to know about the role exercise plays in strengthening our immune system against those less serious (but still irritating) illnesses.
What does the science say?
Research carried out during the Covid 19 pandemic by the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that regular exercisers are better equipped to fight off colds and flu viruses. It doesn’t mean those gym bunnies will never get ill of course. However, if they do, they may just have a stronger immune system to bat it away. This area of research is still pretty new and emerging; but here are a few reasons why exercise may be a key tool in strengthening our immune systems.
Exercise releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, both of which are known to help us deal with stress. It stands to reason that if we exercise regularly we’ll keep those hormone levels topped up and feel less stressed. Research shows that stress, anxiety and depression can have a dramatic effect on our immune system and our resilience to cope with infections, so we can consider exercise preventative action!
Inflammation, although a normal process within the body, can make us more prone to chronic and common health conditions if levels are raised over long periods of time. Regular exercise is proven to reduce inflammation in the body and keep our immune response in check.
People who exercise regularly report better sleep quality than their more sedentary peers. Since people who sleep better are less likely to be run down and depleted, they’ll be better equipped to fight off common colds and flu viruses.
While we are exercising, we create an increased blood flow through the body. In an ideal world all those lovely antibodies which are whooshing around during our workout, would hang around permanently. Sadly, evidence points to our immune cells having an increased presence for just around three hours post-workout. That’s why consistency is key when it comes to exercise! Consistent regular exercise means you have an army of antibodies on patrol on a regular basis ready to fight any nasty bacteria or viruses which are lurking.
So what type of exercise is best at boosting immune system?
Well, as trendy as they are (and I love them both!) there is much less research available on how HIIT and Strength workouts could behave as immune boosters. While they undoubtedly help our cardiovascular system and have myriad benefits for our muscles and bones, the jury is still out on how they affect immunity.
Instead, the research shows steady state cardio, such as cycling, jogging, rowing and aerobics are helpful in getting our immune cells to stand to attention.
And the great news is, you don’t have to dedicate too much of your precious time to the quest. A study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science states that moderate to vigorous intensity for around 30-45 minutes per day is the optimum.
It’s always advisable to complement your steady state cardio with that all important strength training too, so plan your week to try and find a healthy balance between the two.
Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?
For most of us, juggling jobs, families, and hectic modern life, we will probably never have time to do too much exercise! But overtraining is a risk for professional athletes and for the over-zealous amateur exerciser.
Doing too much exercise, especially high intensity explosive training (think weighted HIIT, sprint training etc) can lead to a decrease in immune function and a higher risk of developing respiratory infections. Overtraining can also mess up our precious sleep and make us even more stressed.
It’s worth remembering that minor ailments like colds can be our bodies way of asking us to slow down. While it’s usually fine to continue light activity while you’re dealing with a cold or infection, you should always rest up if you are experiencing a temperature/chills, breathlessness, or nausea.
Taking a holistic approach to exercise is so important. Factoring in some steady state for your immune system, some strength work for your muscles and bones and some HIIT or dance training for the old fun factor means that you’re at less risk of overtraining. It also means you’re much less likely to get bored.
Make variety and consistency your exercise buzzwords!