Exercise and Immunity

Exercise & Immunity

by John Baker

Sickness can be plaguing (pun intended). Being sick cuts away at mood, productivity, and for some, financial status. Nobody likes being sick. You feel gross, out of place in your skin, and sometimes don’t know what to do or how long it will last. Conventional measures and marketing schemes say to reach for the medicine in the cabinet, drink some over-priced and under-dosed liquid from the shop down the street, but often we only feel marginally better. These things, however, only address the issue after you have already been affected by it. If you are sick I am not suggesting you don’t use the medications available that could help, but what if I told you there was a way to boost your immunity to help you avoid getting sick, while also providing innumerable other positive health effects? This magic drug isn’t a pill, capsule, tincture or syrup – it’s exercise. It doesn’t have to be complex or highly structured; it can be as simple as walking.

In a study by Nieman (et al. 1990) that looked at 15 weeks of individuals who walked 5 days a week versus individuals who engaged in sedentary behaviors, it was shown there was a 50% reduction in symptoms correlated with upper respiratory tract illness in walkers compared to non-walkers. Participants did not change any other lifestyle factors, consequently eliminating the potential argument that there could have been an underlying mechanism that could have also been driving the change in immune status. Just a bit of movement can be highly powerful and beneficial in fighting illness, even with all other lifestyle factors unchanged.

While reading this you may be thinking doubtfully about the previous study as it compared a highly active group versus a completely inactive group, somewhat like comparing apples and oranges. The lead researcher went back years later to answer this uncertainty by comparing the immune response of highly active individuals and less active individuals (5 days per week, versus 1 day per week of moderately intense activity). It was shown that over a 12 week period that followed over 1000 individuals that the group that engaged in the higher amount of exercise had a 43% decrease in upper respiratory tract illness rates compared to the group that exercised less (Neiman et al. 2011).

As it can be seen via the peer-reviewed studies mentioned above, exercise plays a large role in the health of the immune system, especially as it pertains to the respiratory tract. In times like these, or any time for that matter, we cannot leave any stone unturned in maximizing our health and safety. Do not wait until you get sick, be proactive and take charge of your health by getting out there and getting moving. Exercise can keep you active in the game of life and whatever other endeavors you choose to partake in – not to mention the numerous other physical and mental benefits it provides, but we will leave those topics to a later date.

D.C. Nieman, D.A. Henson, M.D. Austin, W. Sha Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults
Br J Sports Med, 45 (2011), pp. 987-992

D.C. Nieman, S.L. Nehlsen-Cannarella, P.A. Markoff, A.J. Balk-Lamberton, H. Yang, D.B. Chritton, et al. The effects of moderate exercise training on natural killer cells and acute upper respiratory tract infections
Int J Sports Med, 11 (1990), pp. 467-473