In an age where everyone wants a fast-acting burnout routine, research shows that more exercise might not necessarily be better for immune health. The average adult is exposed to a host of potential viruses and infections daily.
Each year, most adults have 2-3 respiratory infections, demonstrating that what we are currently doing may not improve immune health. Many factors can contribute to poor immune health. Stress and poor nutrition are at the top of the list, but did you know that your exercise intensity has a significant impact on your overall immune health? Here's why.
Exercise and Immunity
I'm not here to say that you should stop exercising altogether - that is not the answer.
We have decades of peer-reviewed research detailing the positive benefits of exercise. People who engage in a routine exercise plan experience many benefits such as weight loss, increases in muscle mass, overall improvements in mental health, and in many cases and improved immune systems.
A research review detailed the differences between high-intensity competitive weight training and acute exercise routines, and the results are something you might expect.
Those involved in acute exercise plans (regular cardio and weight training) had improvements in immune health and the factors contributing to a healthy body.
In contrast, those involved in high exercise training loads and competitive events did experience oxidative stress, muscle damage, and increased illness risk.
Although research is ever-changing, you can start to see a trend here.
Progressive exercise plans seem to be protective.
On the other hand, exercise plans designed for competitions - like CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting, or Marathons, seem to bring more stress to the body and the mind - which can contribute to increased illness risk.
So - what do we do? Stop training?
No - the best solution to protect your body is to create a plan around exercise that has shown to be protective. Before I discuss exercise routines that improve immunity, let's consider factors that are negatively associated with immune health.
Factors That Decrease Immune Health
Focusing on exercise and immunity is not a bad idea - but to truly improve the immune system, we must not be reductionist. Let's look at the entire picture.
Here are four factors that negatively affect immune health:
- Stress: When the body is stressed (psychologically and physically), you reduce the body's ability to fight off antigens. The stress hormone corticosteroid can also reduce the natural power of the immune system.
- Smoking: Smoking seems to create greater susceptibility for infections like pneumonia and influenza while also lowering protective antioxidants like Vitamin C.
- Poor Nutrition: Inflammation and inadequate intakes of protective antioxidant-rich foods are the enemies here. High intakes of red meats, saturated fats, high cholesterol foods, sugar, and low fiber can lead to inflammation in the body, which leads to poor immune health.
- Repetitive Overload In Training: Repetitive overload training which features high-intensity intervals with limited rest opportunity (HIIT workouts), very long duration exercise (marathon training), or exercises with high frequency (more than 5x/week), can trigger an adverse immune response which can open your body up for attacks.
Now that we have an idea for what to avoid let's look at how you can create an exercise plan that improves immune health.
Exercise Routines That Improve Immunity
Research shows that moderate-intensity exercise could be the most effective way to improve physical health while not compromising immune health.
According to the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports, and Health, 30-40 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, five times a weeks is the safest and most effective method.
To avoid the negative effects of exercise and immunity here are four steps you can take.
- Use Progressive Strength Training: We all want to get into the best shape of our life as quickly as possible, but in most cases, this is not the best option. To avoid infection and improve your immune system, it is beneficial to progress into strength training slowly. You can do this by contacting a certified trainer and having them make you a progressive strength plan. This is called periodization, and it ensures that you are moving through the hills and valleys of training in a structured and organized procedure. This will improve your results, but it will ensure that your immune system is not compromised.
- Routine Low-Impact Cardio: Going for a walk or morning bike ride is the best way to start your day - and it shows massive improvements in an immune response. Professor David Nieman, of Appalachian State University, describes moderate-intensity exercise as being protective against immune system invaders. According to the American Council on Exercise, exercise (especially regular cardio) may improve macrophages' activity - which are cells that attack bacteria.
- Use Smarter Rest Times: Most people get into trouble when they stop prioritizing the amount of rest they take. As a general rule of thumb, if you are strength training, you should try to use around 2-3 minutes (at least) of rest time between sets - and if you are doing HIIT-style workouts, you should keep your weekly frequency (# of workouts/week) to about 2-3, not daily. Try to avoid daily HIIT workouts. Although routine can be a good idea, this volume of training does not allow adequate recovery time and can hinder your immune system. This depends on your overall fitness level and your target goals.
- Lock-in Your Nutrition: The last factor might be the most crucial factor that many people push aside. Try to eat a diet that is predominantly un-processed with lean protein sources, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and moderate fat intake. It Will help to increase your antioxidant levels, provide a plethora of vitamins and minerals, and provide a healthy amount of fat in the body. Do your best to limit or avoid high consumption of red meat, processed foods, saturated fats, and trans fats.If it sounds like I am saying you should switch up your diet it probably means you should. According to a review on nutrition, a diet centered around plant-foods is highly protective - especially when it comes to immune health.
- More exercise isn't necessarily better for immunity because your immune system can become compromised through stressful scenarios.
- Competitive exercise routines (very high intensity, very long duration, high volume) do not seem to be as protective as structured strength and moderate-intensity exercise plans.
- Try to engage in 40-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise regularly - make it a routine.
- Some exercise is always better than no exercise, just be sure you have a grasp on your intensity, recovery, and nutrition.