How Exercise Can Affect Immunity

Whether it's because you made a commitment to get healthier or it's simply one of the few activities you have been able to engage in due to various limitations caused by the pandemic, exercising may be something you have been focusing on these last few years.

Of course, this is a good thing. Experts across the health spectrum agree that participating in some form of regular exercise will provide a variety of benefits and likely improve your life. For instance, according to the experts at the Mayo Clinic, exercising is key to helping you maintain a healthy weight or lose weight. This can be a matter of regularly taking the stairs over the elevator or adding some gusto to your house cleaning. Exercise also defends against a whole slew of health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, among many others. In addition, exercise can elevate your mood and reduce depression, as well as help you enjoy better sleep — and better sex.

As the world continues to fight COVID-19 and potentially other variants in the future, though, can exercise also strengthen your immune system and protect against infection? Or does exercise leave you even more prone to getting sick? 

This is how much you should exercise

Health experts know that exercising causes white blood cells, which are responsible for combatting disease, to circulate through your body faster and, therefore, may detect disease sooner. However, it is not yet clear if this process ultimately reduces the chances of infection (via MedlinePlus).

Once you finish your workout, these activated white blood cells begin to decline in your system. Initially, researchers believed this indicated immunosuppression. As it turns out, the white blood cells are moving to other areas of the body and performing a function called immune surveillance. "They go off to other tissues in the body, like the lungs or maybe the skin, intestines, or mucosal surfaces, where an infection might be found," James Turner, Ph.D., an exercise physiology and immunobiology researcher at the University of Bath in the U.K., tells SELF.

While you may think that engaging in more vigorous exercise is better for protecting your immune system, don't dial up your treadmill time just yet. Though still a hotly debated topic, some researchers believe that engaging in vigorous exercises, like running a half-marathon or longer, may tax your immune system, creating an "open window" that can leave you more prone to infection (via SELF). But this may be caused by a combination of factors such as exposure to other people and dealing with life's stressors.

However, it is important not to overdo it, especially considering the presence of COVID-19 leaving us more vulnerable. It's best to stick to exercise guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of ​150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. "That's the sweet spot for activity, and the immune system responds really well to it," exercise immunology researcher Dr. David Nieman, a professor of biology at Appalachian State University tells SELF.