Exercise has a protective effect on health and is key for a long life. New research shows it can improve immune function and reduce the risk of severe complications from illness, including the flu and coronavirus.
This is important because surveys show that citizens in developed countries have become more sedentary and less fit since the start of lockdowns (1).
While it may be challenging to maintain fitness if your gym is closed, there are plenty of ways to train so that you protect yourself from illness. This article will explain why exercise is so important for your immune system and give you tips for an efficient workout.
How Does Exercise Support Immunity?
Physical activity elevates your immune system by improving the body’s natural antioxidant system. Studies show that those who exercise tend to suffer fewer infections than sedentary individuals. In a review from the University of Virginia, people who exercised regularly had lower risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a major cause of death in patients with COVID-19 (2).
Exercise raises levels of an antioxidant known as superoxide dismutase that is protective against viruses (2, 3). This potent antioxidant hunts down harmful free radicals, protecting our tissues and helping to prevent disease. Our muscles naturally make superoxide dismutase (SOD), secreting it into circulation to allow binding to other vital organs, and its production is enhanced by aerobic exercise.
SOD is protective against several chronic diseases as well, including acute lung disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney failure, diabetic retinopathy, and osteoarthritis.
What Type of Exercise for Immune Support?
Both aerobic and strength training are certain to support the immune system. Due to a greater body of research, scientists tend to recommend moderate-endurance exercise for immune benefits. For example, 10 months of regular endurance exercise improved flu vaccination responses in older adults who were immune compromised (2).
There is a lack of research on the impact of strength training, but researchers theorize that this type of exercise can also improve immune responses. It certainly reduces risk of underlying diseases that put you at risk of illness, such as insulin resistance and obesity. Additionally, muscle is protective against death, providing a reservoir for the body when things go wrong. Muscle mass is consistently linked with longevity, especially in people with cancer and other chronic diseases.
Workout Guidelines for Immune Support
When designing workouts for immune support you want to incorporate strength training, conditioning, and some form of mind-body work for recovery.
#1: Do Smart Cardio
Experts recommend that 30 minutes of moderate intensity training daily will raise SOD and promote general fitness. Brisk walking or biking are great options. Hiking in nature is especially effective, but if all you’ve got is pavement, the key is to enjoy your walk.
Interval training is also an option that will raise antioxidant status and promote fitness. Here are two research-supported workouts:
The Wingate protocol—4 repeats of 30-second sprints on a bike with 4 minutes active rest.
The New South Wales protocol—20 minutes of cycling with 8 second intervals interspersed with 12 seconds easy pedaling on a bike.
#2: Prioritize Strength Training
Strength training is important to maintain muscle, while minimizing the stress response that makes you susceptible to illness. If you’re avoiding the gym, you can still get a good workout with a minimum of gym equipment and a few body weight exercises.
Using resistance bands or dumbbells, it is possible to do squat variations, push-ups, lunges, step-ups, overhead press, bent over rows, and biceps and triceps curls. Get a suspension trainer and a stability ball and you can add inverted rows, hamstring curls, and core exercises.
Regarding rep ranges, this is a great time to favor volume, using rep ranges of 12 to 15 for 3 to 5 sets to encourage muscle and connective tissue adaptations. After several weeks, you can either increase your resistance and lower your rep ranges, or if you lack equipment, bump your volume up with higher reps in the 15 to 20 range for greater metabolic stress. The goal is to keep the body adapting until you can get back in the gym and increase your intensity with heavier loads.
#3: Use Mind-Body Exercise
Exercise that requires you to get your body in tune with your mind can also support the immune system. Yoga has been shown to improve immune markers in the blood while practitioners of the martial art judo have lower levels of inflammation that predispose to illness. Other mind-body practices that will likely convey immune benefits include most martial arts, deep breathing, regular stretching, foam rolling, and dancing.