adults stretching before exercise

Exercise for a stronger immune system

You probably know that exercise is good for lowering your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, osteoporosis and, perhaps, cancer - but did you know that exercise may also help your immune system defend against cold, flu, chickenpox, mumps, measles and other bacterial and viral infections? To understand why this is good news, let's look at just what we mean when we talk about the immune system.

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Everybody has a built-in defense system for fighting off disease that is comprised of macrophages, or white blood cells that are hungry for bacteria and viruses. These white blood cells circulate through our bodies like little ninjas, wiping out the bad guys. Exercising is a way to make your "ninjas" circulate faster (so they may recognize illness sooner), attack harmful germs and microorganism more aggressively and for longer periods of time. Exercise may also encourage the release of bacteria and virus detecting hormones.

There is a cumulative effect from regular exercise on your immune system. Research shows that those who exercise daily for 45 minutes at 70-75% of their maximum capability experience half as many colds as those who don't exercise regularly. When you exercise, your body temperature rises, which works like a fever to kill off infectious agents that can't survive higher temperature.

Exercise increases urine and sweat output which may rid our bodies of potential cancer-causing cells in the waste. And the fuller breathing brought on by exercise my help to flush cold, flu and other airborne invaders from our lungs

Lastly, regular exercise slows the release of stress hormones, which we know can suppress immunity. So, the less that our body is under stress, the more able it is to fight illness.

Too much exercise may decrease immunity

You can get too much of a good thing. Exercising for 90 minutes or longer at a very high intensity may suppress white blood cell production, increase stress-hormone levels, and put you to a greater risk of illness. So stick with a program of regular, moderate intensity exercise for the healthiest immune system. This can include anything from a 20 to 30 minutes, 4-5 days per week of, moderately intensive walking, swimming, biking, or jogging; attending an aerobics class; or playing golf or tennis. Even pushing the lawnmower counts!

Plus, if you can include strength training in your exercise program, such as lifting weights, using exercise bands, attending yoga classes or doing pushups, sit ups and pull ups, this increases the immune support benefits even more.

Should a person exercise if they're coming down with the cold or flu?

Generally, medical professionals say that as long as your symptoms are above the neck, it's okay to exercise (of course, check with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns).

In fact, some moderate exercise may ease head congestion and can help you feel better. But if you have muscle aches, tummy issues and/or a fever, lay low until these symptoms subside. Then ease back into your regular exercise ritual.

What is our "immune system?"

When working properly, our bodies have a wonderful ability to protect us from foreign invaders and internal threats like bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi and even toxins.

The primarily responsibility for mustering an immune response (detecting and destroying disease-causing substances or organisms) falls to the white blood cells, which are produced and stored in tissues and organs throughout the body: bone marrow, spleen, thyroid, lymph nodes -- and even the tonsils and appendix.

When an invader is detected, certain white blood cells have the ability to destroy the invaders while others are in charge of remembering and recognizing the invaders. So, if we're exposed again in the future, we can muster a quick, vigorous response.

And what is the recommendation if you feel that you're too old or if you have a chronic health condition (such as heart disease or diabetes) that may prohibit you from exercising? The good news is that becoming more physically active provides health benefits to almost anyone, regardless of their age or health condition -- as long as the health condition is under control and the fitness program is being coordinated with your doctor's directions! The same level of exercise that can provide important health benefits to someone whose condition is under control and they are symptom-free has the potential to be very harmful and dangerous when the person is in the midst of a "flare-up." If you're suffering from a chronic health condition and are interested in beginning an exercise program, you may want to visit http://weboflife.nasa.gov/exerciseandaging/chapter2.html

Other lifestyle choices that can boost your immunity

While exercise can be a powerful tool to help avoid or prevent illness, it can't work miracles all by itself. Your healthy, immune-boosting lifestyle should also include these smart tactics:

Sources: Accessed April 31, 2012
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007165.htm
http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/body_basics/immune.html
http://www.bam.gov/sub_diseases/diseases_immuneplatoon.html
http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/immunesystem/documents/
theimmunesystem.pdf

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