ôô

How Exercise Can Boost Your Immunity

Did you know that exercise can naturally boost your immunity to protect against viral infections like the flu and COVID-19? Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, shares some key tips on how to use exercise to boost your immune system.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
5-minute read
Episode #569
The Quick And Dirty
  • Research shows that moderate intensity exercise stimulates immune function in a way that can reduce the risk, duration, or severity of viral infections such as COVID and the flu.
  • About 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week seems to be optimal for boosting immune function.
  • Try to perform 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days a week at a pace where your breathing quickens and you break a sweat, yet you’re still able to carry on a conversation.

What’s worse than being in a pandemic with no end in sight? If your answer is to be in a pandemic with no end in sight during the peak of the flu season, you read my mind! 

Actually, what’s even worse is having a family with young children and two working adults, then daycare gets shut down for a week because another child tested positive for COVID. Trust me, it’s no fun trying to convince two kicking and screaming toddlers to let you swab the inside of their noses when they don’t want you to. 

Although getting a co-infection involving COVID and the flu—nicknamed "flurona"—is rare, it’s becoming more of a possibility as the flu picks up steam. I don’t know about you, but getting COVID or the flu sounds bad enough by itself. The thought of having flurona sounds brutal.

Luckily, there are ways to safely, effectively, and naturally boost your immunity to protect against viral infections such as COVID and the flu. Moderate intensity exercise is one solution and has a good amount of scientific research supporting it. So whether you’re looking to protect against a seasonal disease, or just want to naturally boost your immune system year-round, here are some key tips.

How exercise boosts the immune system

It’s well known that physical activity is an important part of healthy living. Exercise can prevent excess weight gain, combat chronic diseases, improve mood, and promote better sleep, just to name a few of the benefits. 

What’s not as well known are the benefits of physical exercise in reducing communicable disease, including viral infections such as covid and the flu. The general consensus in a branch of research known as exercise immunology is that the immune system is responsive to exercise. 

Without getting into too much unnecessary detail, research shows that moderate intensity exercise stimulates immune function in a way that can reduce the risk, duration, or severity of viral infections such as COVID and the flu. About 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week seems to be optimal for boosting immune function.

One study that followed over 1,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 85 for 12 weeks during the fall and winter seasons showed that people who exercised frequently reported 43% fewer days of upper respiratory tract infection than those who only exercised 1 day a week or less.

In the same study, upper respiratory tract infection severity was also reported to be about 40% lower in the group who reported exercising more compared to the group who reported exercising less. 

Another study that included over 48,000 adults diagnosed with COVID found that those who consistently met the physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity exercise a week had a significantly lower risk of hospitalisation and admission to the ICU due to COVID compared to those who did not consistently meet the physical activity guidelines.

Like anything else in life, balance is key, because it’s believed that too much exercise can actually decrease immunity. This makes sense, because exercise is stress to the body and while some stress is good for us, too much of it can be harmful.

Just how much exercise is too much? According to the International Society for Exercise and Immunology, prolonged physical exercise that is longer than 90 minutes of moderate or high intensity physical activity at one time can reduce immunity and make you more prone to infectious diseases. 

Simple exercise suggestions 

The easiest way to meet the physical activities guidelines of 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity exercise a week is to perform 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days a week at a pace where your breathing quickens and you break a sweat, yet you’re still able to carry on a conversation.

It doesn’t matter what type of aerobic exercise you perform, the most important thing is to make sure you perform exercises that you enjoy because it’ll be difficult to start or stick with anything that you don’t like. Do you enjoy walking, running, hiking, biking, swimming, or a fitness video game like Ring Fit Adventure for Nintendo Switch?

Making exercise enjoyable also means exercising during a time of day when you feel motivated. Is this in the morning, afternoon, or evening? The best time to exercise is when you feel most energized and motivated. 

This is different for each person and is based on your lifestyle, habits, and genetics. Don’t feel like you have to wake up at 5 a.m. in the morning to exercise just because your bodybuilder uncle Joe goes to the gym at that time. I’m totally not a morning workout person and you won’t ever find me exercising anytime before 11 a.m.

To stay consistent with exercise, it also helps to schedule exercise into your day. For example, you can put exercise down on your calendar or to-do list. I find that this makes the task of exercising more of a commitment and less of an option. Plus, you get the pleasure of crossing it off your list when you’re done. 

If you enjoy the social aspects of exercise, you can invite friends along, attend an outdoor group class, or join an intramural sports team. You’ll be able to hold each other accountable and help each other stay motivated. 

Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is also beneficial for preventing and relieving depression. The pandemic has had a major impact on mental health and recent surveys show that nearly a quarter of adults in the United States currently report symptoms of depression, more than double pre-pandemic levels.

Seasonal affective disorder, simply known as winter depression, is also common this time of year and exercise can help. Although not the end-all-be-all to treating depression and reaching out to a mental health professional is highly encouraged, exercising (especially exercising with others) can produce antidepressant effects.

How Exercise Can Combat Depression

Don’t think that exercise has to be limited to what we traditionally think of as exercise. Activities such as rock climbing, basketball, tennis, dancing, and playing outside with the kids are great ways to get the blood pumping without feeling like you’re exercising. I always end up feeling exhausted before my toddlers do every time I play tag or hide and seek with them. 

5-day exercise to book your immunity challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day exercise to boost your immunity challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise for 5 consecutive days. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

 
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.