Immune System 101 (Part 6) - Exercise & Your Immune System

Immune System series

A recap on how we should look at immune health 

1.  Your immune system is an amazing, intelligent tool for protecting you from viruses and disease.  

2.  It does not need you to ‘boost it’ or ‘supercharge it’.  In fact, doing so can make you very sick. 

3.  To really help your immune system work to its full potential you should do things that won’t weaken your immune system or leave you unnecessarily vulnerable. 

In this article we look at the role of exercise in supporting our immune system.  Lifting weights will strengthen your muscles and your immune health.  

Movement matters

Regular exercise (in conjunction with good recovery, stress management and eating well) is a key part of keeping your immune system functioning well.  

It is well established that a structured and balanced exercise routine(more on this below) reduces the incidence of many chronic diseases including viruses, bacterial infections and more chronic disease including cancer.  

Exercise supports the immune system in a number of ways.  For example, exercise causes change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body’s immune system cells that fight disease. Scientists believe that these antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly because of exercise, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. 

Before you rush off to the gym though, please ensure you take note of the importance of having a balanced exercise schedule.  Getting it wrong can actually have a negative impact on your immune systems ability to fight off disease. 

Balance is important

The right amount of exercise has a positive impact on your immune system.  Too little, or indeed, too much exercise can have a negative impact.  

Which category do you fit into? 

Sedentary people:  Sedentary people have a moderate risk of infection. Their immune system isn’t running as well as it could be.

Regular exercisers:  People who are regularly active, but moderate their intensity and vary their training, do better than the sedentary people. They’re the healthiest bunch who have an exercise programme that aids rather than weakens their immune system.  Regular exercisers tend to train intensely 3-4 times per week and mix that up with some good active rest (e.g. stretching, pilates, yoga etc).   

Overtrainers:  People who are active but constantly pushing their limits — whether that’s workout frequency, duration, intensity, or loading — without proper recovery start to become sicker and sicker the more they crank up the difficulty.  This group’s immune systems are not functioning at their best for this. 

Let’s take a look at what a healthy, immune system supporting exercise schedule looks like… 

What a good balance looks like

Here are some tips to get make your workout schedule right: 

  • Vary your training program and train in different ways.  
  • Participate in low intensity exercise between higher intensity training to promote recovery (e.g., yoga, walking, swimming, stretching, mobility work, etc.)
  • Get 30 minutes of rest and recovery in per day (e.g. reading a good book, meditation, warm baths, light conversation with friends, taking a relaxing walk etc). 
  • Don’t lower calorie intake below 2000kcal (men) or 1500kcal (women) when training more than 7 hours a week. 
  • Eat nutrient dense foods at regular intervals, incorporate herbs and spices, and drink water and tea whenever you are thirsty.  
  • Aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night. 
  • Hydrate well. 

Overtraining (or should we say, under-recovering)

How will you know if you are doing too much exercise and training resulting in a suppressed immune system? 

Here are some signs:

  • Your muscles are always sore
  • You aren’t sleeping well – or you are sleeping too much. 
  • You have no appetite – or you want to eat everything in sight all the time. 
  • Everything hurts, always. 
  • The idea of going to the gym makes you feel depressed or anxious. 
  • In fact you feel more depressed and anxious overall, often accompanied by a bad mood. 
  • You seem to come down with every virus going around
  • Your gym performance is getting worse and worse. 

One test that indicates overtraining/under-recovering is a faster morning heart rate.  Check your pulse before you get out of bed in the morning.  

Here’s how it works:

1. Lie quietly for 10 minutes, then stand up and wait exactly 12 seconds before counting your pulse for six seconds. Write this number down.

2. Next, starting precisely 90 seconds after you stood up, count your pulse again, but this time for 30 seconds. Write this number down.

3. Now convert these two numbers to heart rates (beats per minute) by multiplying the first reading by 10 and the second by two.

Do this test every day at the same time of day. If you are not overtrained, these two readings will remain remarkably constant from day to day. If you’re overtrained, or heading in that direction, you’ll see a gradual rise in your heart rates especially in your later reading.

Exercise is important for supporting your immune system.  But don’t overdo it. 

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