You know exercise is good for your health, but you might be wondering—can exercise help ward off respiratory illnesses? And should you continue exercising during a global pandemic, or should you give your immune system a rest?
As it turns out, continued physical activity can actually help boost your immune system—but just don’t overdo it.
Obesity and and inactivity can lower the function of the immune system, but engaging in a healthy lifestyle can help improve the immune system’s surveillance activity (when immune cells are in the bloodstream looking for infection) and may even reduce mortality rates from respiratory illnesses.
So, how can you make exercise work in your favor, and how much do you need? 30 to 60 minutes of near daily brisk walking (at least 3.5 miles per hour, or a 17-minute mile) can improve your body’s defense against germs.
That’s because each time you exercise, the activity increases the exchange of important white blood cells between peripheral tissues—which help with the body’s immune response—and the circulation (blood and lymph vessels). This increases the activity of immune cells in the bloodstream looking for viruses.
On the flip side, overtraining can lower your immune system function.
Overtraining that leads to chronic fatigue, performance decline and mood disturbances can decrease immune function, resulting in increased odds for respiratory infections.
And while overtraining looks different for everyone, caution against pushing too hard during exercise training without adequate rest and recovery, as this can lead to chronic fatigue, performance decline, and mood disturbances, which decrease immune function.
As for increasing your mileage during marathon training or adding in more tough workouts? You’ll want to be careful you don’t push too hard.
If you are already an avid exerciser, keep it up, but remember everything is multifactorial. Physical activity is just one important factor that helps the immune system do its job better. Other factors include high flavonoid intake from berries and other fruits, low mental stress, regular sleep, and a nutrient-rich diet. And if you haven’t previously been active, making healthy changes in your diet and exercise routines will be beneficial to your health, just be sure to check in with a doctor.