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All health immune health How does exercise affect the immune system?

How does exercise affect the immune system?

Man doing yoga at home he is in upward facing dog yoga pose

10 September 2021

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3 min read

You know that exercise is good for you.

By moving more and sitting less you may improve your physical health, increase your energy levels and reduce the risk of many health conditions. Not to mention the mental wellbeing benefits of staying active. 

But what of the effects of exercise on the immune system? Is there a link?

GP Dr Jill Gamberg suggests that much like the link between stress and the immune system, there is a possible link between exercise and the immune system.

However, there’s more to it than that. Nothing to do with the immune system is simple, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to exercise and the immune system. 

While moderate exercise in line with the guidelines may strengthen our immune system, too much exercise could possibly have the opposite effect.

— Dr Jill Gamberg, GP

How much exercise do you need?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 44% of adults (aged 18-64 years) spend the majority of their workday sitting. At the same time, more than half of Australian adults don’t meet the Federal Government’s physical activity guidelines.

But how much exercise do we actually need? Dr Jill says that the guidelines recommend that adults aged 18-64 should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. 

“When we talk about moderate exercise, it essentially means you can carry on a light conversation, but you can’t sing a song,” explains Dr Jill. “Basically, your heart rate needs to be up, and you need to be sweating a bit.

“Also, don’t forget about adding in two days of strengthening exercises as well. This is really important for bone and muscle strength,” says Dr Jill.

Two people in exercise clothes smiling after they have finished their workout which may have effects on the immune system.

Regular moderate exercise is just one part of healthy living that helps support immune system health.

Does exercise help the immune system?

Now to the nitty-gritty of it. When you think about what affects your immune system, what role does immune function play in sport and exercise? 

Interestingly, Dr Jill says that while moderate exercise in line with the guidelines may strengthen our immune system, too much exercise could possibly have the opposite effect.

It’s thought that extremely strenuous or prolonged exercise may induce immune changes associated with 

decreased resistance to the viruses in the days after that strenuous exercise. Conversely, moderate exercise may offer protection against infections.

“Does exercise increase white blood cells that play an important role in the immune system? The science suggests that it does. Can overtraining cause low white blood cells? It appears that strenuous exercise may have this deleterious effect. Moderation and consistency are key,” says Dr Jill.

There’s your interesting fact about the immune system for the day!

Should you exercise with a cold?

So, what if you’ve got a cold? Should you skip your regular exercise session? 

Jill says that if you’re really unwell, you just need to rest. Otherwise, it may be beneficial to get your body moving.

“It’s an interesting question. If you’ve got a common cold and you’re not feeling too unwell, the research shows that getting outside for a walk in the fresh air may actually be beneficial. The key is that going for a walk or doing some other light intensity exercise might make you feel a little better,” Dr Jill says.

Of course, if you’re very unwell and your illness is prolonged, it goes without saying that you should see your healthcare practitioner.

A woman in exercise clothes is dancing to some music through headphones and might be wondering if exercise helps the immune system.

Moderate exercise may offer protection against infections.

The final word on the effects of exercise on the immune system

The immune system is a fascinating subject. Our bodies truly work in amazing ways! 

In the same way, you shouldn’t just rely on taking vitamins for immune system health, exercise isn’t a single solution for a healthy immune system. 

It’s just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. 

Related:

Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board August 2021.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.