5 Ways Exercise Boosts the Immune System
From a medical standpoint we are truly fortunate. For the most part, our society is free from the dread diseases of the past like the black plague, cholera, and smallpox that decimated populations, sometimes killing off whole communities. Many of those deadly diseases are either nearly extinct or very treatable today.
But a different variety of diseases is plaguing us today and more often than not, they are on the rise. Some within the medical community refer to these diseases as “immunity rot,” “the new morbidity” or “the diseases of lifestyle.” That’s because, “These ailments come as a result of our bad habits and poor choices,” according to Dr. Richard A. Swenson, MD.
Simply put, our lifestyles consist of extremes:
- Se sleep too little
- We eat too much
- We exercise too little
- And we have too much stress
All this comes to bear on our health.
Obesity and diabetes are growing at alarming rates in the US. Heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and a whole host of other lifestyle disorders are sweeping the nation, becoming all too common. We may be living longer, but with less vitality and quality of life.
Exercise is one of the keys to reversing this downward health spiral in our lives. In fact, exercise is a primary factor in building our immune system to ward off those diseases of lifestyle.
1. Exercise is necessary for overall physical and mental health.
Our bodies were created for movement. The Johns Hopkins Medical Center reports, “Physical inactivity has clearly been shown to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and other conditions” including:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary heart disease
- Feelings of anxiety and depression
- Risk of some types of cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
Vigorous exercises like running, swimming, walking fast, cycling hard may add years to your life according to various studies conducted in Europe.
2. Regular aerobic exercise increases the body’s ability to deliver and use oxygen.
Oxygen is the enemy of disease and the friend of healthy cells. Lack of oxygen in the bloodstream due to physical inactivity is a common factor in asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and the variations of COPD.
Insufficient oxygen in the blood has also been linked to virtually every major category of illnesses including: the development of cancer, heart conditions, problems with the intestinal tract, respiratory disease, joint problems, sinus issues, yeast infections, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and sexual dysfunction.
3. Physical exercise has been shown to increase the “T-cells” or immune cells in the body.
T-cells are the cells that attack bacteria and viruses. Exercise increases the number and aggressiveness of these immunity cells as much as 50-300%.
For this reason, those who exercise regularly generally get fewer colds and flus. When they do get sick, their illness tends to be less intense than for those who are sedentary. Moderate exercise when you have a cold may also help you get over it sooner. But you have to listen to your body and not overdo it.
4. Physical exercise boosts the immune systems by decreasing the stress hormones in the body.
The body’s natural response to stress of nearly any kind is to secrete stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. These stress hormones are known to lower the immune system.
Other than avoiding stress altogether (which is nigh unto impossible) the best way to rid the body of these stress chemicals is through physical exercise.
5. Exercise boosts the immune system by increasing insulin sensitivity in the cells and lowering blood sugar.
Sugar causes inflammation. Physical exercise increases the body’s ability to transport and metabolize sugar, getting it out of our system. And by maintaining healthy levels of blood sugar, we avoid the horrible complications often associated with diabetes like heart and kidney disease, neuropathy, blindness, and Alzheimer’s.
Yet, we often struggle to make regular physical exercise part of our lifestyle.
The experts agree that a routine of 30-45 minutes of sustained exercise like brisk walking, running, bicycling, swimming, etc. three to four days per week is what it takes.
Keys to making exercise a habit
There are several things you can do to make regular exercise a part of your lifestyle:
- Find an activity that you enjoy. Make it fun! If you’re going to walk, go somewhere that is enjoyable. If you have a dog, take your dog with you.
- Choose an exercise that is practical and easy for you to engage in. If you have to travel 20 miles to find a swimming pool, then swimming may not be the best option for you. Integrating a brisk walk in the early morning, over lunch, or in the evening can be a great exercise to begin with.
- Engage the help of a friend or partner to exercise with you. This one practice can often make or break your resolve.
- Start slowly if you haven’t been exercising regularly. Don’t try to go out and run six miles the first day. You may injure yourself, or at the very least be very sore and discouraged the next day.
- Once you establish a routine, vary it for more enjoyment. For example, in the summer I alternate between hiking and bicycling, and I have several different routes to take with each. In the winter, I toggle between cross-country skiing, hiking and snowshoeing.
- Purchase at least the minimum of the right equipment to engage in your exercise. Beyond the obvious physical factors involved in owning the right gear, there’s also a psychological sense of satisfaction that comes along with it.
- Set small goals and reward yourself for hitting them.
- When you fail to meet an exercise appointment for one or more days, don’t let it derail you. Make tomorrow a new day to start fresh.
- When you travel, think ahead about what you need to take with you and how, where and when you can exercise. It can be an adventure to walk or run in a new city, or on the beach, or in a forest you’ve never explored.
- Learn to listen to your body. Sometimes exercising can bring on minor aches and pains that we would not have otherwise experienced. Learn to distinguish between a pain that requires a day or two of rest and one that will go away if you continue your exercise.
- Stay hydrated and eat in a healthy way that will support your new exercise routine.
- Get a good night’s sleep! A regular routine of exercise will not only help you sleep, but getting plenty of rest will enhance your workouts.
If you’re not already engaged in a regular exercise routine, make plans to start one this week!
And let me leave you with this quote from Ellen DeGeneres, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.”
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 Richard A. Swenson, MD, Margin–Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), p. 96.
 Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Risks of Physical Inactivity,” nd, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/cardiovascular_diseases/risks_of_physical_inactivity_85,P00218/.
 Huffington Post, “Exercise Could Boost the Immune System, Study Suggests,” October 17, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/17/exercise-immune-system-t-cells_n_1971311.html.
 Breathing.com, “Oxygen Crisis,” nd, http://www.breathing.com/articles/oxygen.htm.
 WebMD, “Exercise and the Common Cold,” June 11, 2012, http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/cold-guide/exercise-when-you-have-cold.
 Peter Lavelle, “Study Proves Exercise Boosts Immune System,” ABC, November 2, 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/11/02/3054621.htm.
 Dr. Mercola, “Exercise Helps Your Immune System Protect Against Future Cancers,” November 30, 2012, http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2012/11/30/exercise-protects-immune-system.aspx.
 Dr. Mercola.
 Peter Lavelle.
 L.B. Borghouts, H.A. Keizer, “Exercise and Insulin Sensitivity: a Review,” PubMed.gov, January 21, 2000, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10683091.
 Richard A. Swenson, MD.