Exercise and the immune system

Is there a link between physical activity and illness?

Most definitely yes. Being in isolation without access to gyms and sports clubs shouldn’t mean people must stop exercising, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bath. Exercising daily, when much of the world is going into isolation will play an important role in helping to maintain a healthy immune system.

In a recent article published this year by leading experts, they debated whether the immune system can change in a negative or positive way after exercising, and whether or not athletes get more infections than the general population. The article concludes that infections are more likely to be linked to inadequate diet, psychological stress, insufficient sleep, travel and importantly pathogen exposure at social gathering events like marathons – rather than the act of exercising itself.

What should I do if exercising is restricted due to a health condition?

If the capacity to exercise is restricted due to a health condition or disability, the message is to “move more” and that “doing something is better than doing nothing”. Resistance exercise has clear benefits for maintaining muscles, which also helps improve movement.

Currently, researchers underline the importance of maintaining good personal hygiene when exercising, including washing hands thoroughly after exercising. To give the body its best chance at fighting off infections, they suggest in addition to doing regular exercise, people need to pay attention to the amount of sleep they get and maintain a healthy diet that is energy balanced to account for energy that is used during exercise. Their hope is that their article will lead to a wave of new research exploring the benefits of exercising for healthy immune function.

How exactly does exercise affect your immune system?

In response to exercise, there is an immune response, which is a normal immune response, says James Turner Ph.D., an exercise physiology and immunobiology researcher at the University of Bath in the U.K. “It’s probably more accurate to say exercise stimulates or kick starts some normal immune processes.”

When you engage in any kind of physical activity that gets your heart rate up for a sustained amount of time, your body senses it as a type of physiological stressor. As a result, it deploys certain types of white blood cells (particularly T-cells and natural killer cells) from different parts of your body to flood your bloodstream.

“These very specialized, powerful immune cells are like the Army Rangers of the military,” says exercise immunology researcher David Nieman, Dr.Ph., a professor of biology at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus. “They come out and circulate during exercise at a higher rate than normal. Any pathogens are more easily detected and destroyed during this process”.

Can too much exercise harm the immune system?

This question has been hotly debated for years, and as with many questions in the field of science, there isn’t exactly a consensus on the answer. According to Nieman, vigorous exercise of a long duration – think 90 minutes or more, like you’re running a half marathon or a marathon, starts to over-stress your immune system, which can temporarily impair its ability to do its job and leave you more vulnerable to infection during this time. That is what is known as the open window hypothesis. HIIT, on the other hand is not linked to such immune suppression even though it involves super-intense work, probably because of its rest intervals and shorter overall duration, says Nieman.

Evidence now shows that some elite athletes get sick with upper respiratory infections (URI) after competitions, but Turner and other experts argue that it’s not exactly the exercise that’s to blame: “It is misleading to conclude from existing evidence, that exercise is the causative factor of URI among athletes,” Turner’s team wrote in a new debate paper on exercise and immune suppression published in Exercise and Immunology Review this year. After all, Turner says, even though some immune cell counts are lower after intense exercise, it isn’t because they’ve died off, they’ve just gone off to other tissues in the body to continue their infection patrol.

The more likely reason for sickness after intense competition like marathons—whether for elite athletes or recreational runners – Turner believes, it’s not just about the exercise. It likely also has to do with the environment, he says. Think of marathons at the starting line during big-city races, runners are literally standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and this doesn’t change much once the race commences.

“You are exposed to thousands of people there,” Turner says – so those who are sick with viral or bacterial infections can subsequently transmit them to you. That can be directly through nasal droplets that enter your nose or mouth, like through another person’s cough or sneeze, or by touching a surface that a person who is sick has touched and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes.

So just how important is it to stay fit?

In the context of Covid-19 and the conditions we find ourselves in today, the most important thing to consider is reducing your exposure to other people who could possibly be infected with the virus. However, people should not overlook the importance of staying fit, active, and healthy during this period. It’s important to exercise in accordance with the governments’ guidelines. Regular exercise will have a tremendous positive effect on our health and well being, both today and in the future. 

Consider your workouts a bolstering factor, something that can supplement those tried-and-true prevention strategies and give your immune system a solid foundation to help it do its job.

“People should aim to exercise regularly, and that will over a long period, benefit immune function overall,” Turner says.

How can Pilates assist in my quest to stay fit and healthy?

Pilates Dynamics offers online Pilates and Yoga classes. There is no better time than the present to partake in online classes from the comfort of your home to improve your strength, range of movement, flexibility, mobility, your sleeping patterns, and your immune system. 

Our classes are conducted by experienced Pilates and Yoga trainers, with experience Internationally and Nationally.  We offer morning and evening classes, so there is lots of variety to choose from both in terms of times and trainers.

How do I book a class?

The first class is free!  Thereafter you can choose whether to continue to book for the rest of the month. Contact us on info@pilatesdynamics.co.za or phone us on 072 999 2229 to find out how to book your first class. You can then book your own classes, as and when you like, directly via our website.

Are there any other additional benefits to doing Pilates and Yoga classes through Pilates Dynamics ?

Yes, absolutely! Class attendance is unlimited (join as many classes as you like) and you will earn Discovery Vitality points for every class you attend.