Unlocking Winter Exercise as an Immune Superpower

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere brings celebrations, feasts, large gatherings, often colder temperatures, bad weather, and long periods spent indoors. With these winter changes comes an increased risk of exposure to respiratory illnesses. If we fail to get enough sleep, have increased stress levels during the holidays, work too much, and fail to exercise, our immune systems suffer. Lack of exercise and a weakened immune system puts us at a higher risk of getting sick.

Key takeaways:

However, regular moderate-intensity exercise has been linked to improved immunological function, lowering the infection risk.

Exercise benefits immune function

With colder weather, more time indoors, and increased gatherings with friends and family around the holiday season, one’s immune system can falter. A weakened immune system puts us at a higher risk for respiratory illnesses, fatigue, and, for many, mild mood changes.

Keeping physically active, preventing a sedentary life, and engaging in indoor and outdoor activities (weather permitting) can boost our health and immune system. Routine exercise improves sleep duration and quality. Further, it lessens our risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions, elevates mood, and enhances productivity.

Research shows that exercise also plays a key role in boosting our immune system. So, besides taking steps to strengthen our immune systems and protect ourselves from seasonal infections such as COVID-19, RSV, and the flu, physical activity is an additional tool in our arsenal that is key to staying healthy in winter. We want to prevent illnesses, enjoy the season, spend time with friends and family, and have sufficient energy to accomplish work, home needs, and play.

Choose a walk, even if brief, over a nap. For those stuck behind a computer or desk all day, even taking a 5-minute walk around the office, going up and down a flight of stairs a few times, or doing, say, 100 jumping jacks gets the blood flowing, breaks up the monotony, moves the joints, and prevents stiffness — this goes a long way to improving overall health. But, in order to boost our immune system and aid in fighting off those pesky winter illnesses, regular moderate-intensity exercise is necessary.

Boosting our winter immune system

Physical activity can help improve your immune system and lessen your chances of getting sick this winter including:

  • Practicing proper hygiene
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Avoiding contact with sick people
  • Staying home when ill
  • Wearing a face mask when traveling or being sick

Immunology and exercise

Immune surveillance or immunovigilence is the body’s ability to monitor for potential invaders (viral particles, bacteria, even cancer cells) and initiate a proper immune response. Regular physical activity improves immune surveillance, enhancing one’s ability to fight infection.

Immunosenescence is the age-related decline in immunological function that increases the risk of infections, cancers, and autoimmune disorders in older populations. Scientific research has demonstrated that regular physical activity boosts immune function across all stages of life and delays the onset of immunosenescence.

Physical activity

Physical activity benefits our bodies in many ways, from boosting our immune system, helping us maintain a healthy body weight, and shedding those extra holiday pounds, to improving mood and mental health.

How exercise boosts immunity

Enhancing immune function and strengthening our defenses against infections is a crucial field of scientific inquiry. While the COVID-19 pandemic cost us numerous lives and triggered an increase in chronic diseases and other ill effects, it provided avenues of research and tons of data, including information on how the immune system functions and attempts to fight the virus.

A literature review of the current COVID-19 research and a systematic review broadly evaluating exercise and immune function help demonstrate the benefits of regular appropriate intensity activity (not too little and not too strenuous without periods of rest) on the immune system.

Collectively, the data show how routine exercise can aid in our ability to decrease the risk of respiratory infections, such as COVID-19.

Direct immune benefits

We directly benefit when engaging in routine physical activity of moderate intensity. Physical activity permits for:

  • Improved immunovigilence, AKA immune surveillance. It permits our bodies to react faster and more completely to potential threats.
  • Improved immune competence. It improves the body’s ability to respond appropriately to exposure to an antigen, e.g., viruses or bacteria.
  • Delay the onset of immunosenescence. Immune control is improved by delaying the deficiencies in immunological function brought on by age.
  • Reduction of chronic inflammation. Obesity and other chronic diseases increase inflammation, which weakens the immune system.

In layperson’s terms, this means that via many different mechanisms, exercise provides anti-inflammatory effects on the body and, thus, improves one’s chances of maintaining health. Further, it delays the immune system's aging process, improving immune function as we age.

Indirect immune benefits

Indirectly, we see numerous benefits from routine physical activity.

  • Exercise helps with weight management. Obesity leads to increased inflammation, which can alter one’s immune system’s response to illness. Thus, maintaining a healthy body weight aids in a healthy immune system.
  • Improves heart and lung function.
  • Enhances control of sugar, lipids (fats), and insulin regulation in those with and without diabetes.
  • Increase one’s ability to mount a proper immune response to vaccinations.

Exercise doesn’t mean you must always do an intensive run daily. Too much intense activity can be harmful to the immune system. Ideally, we want moderate-intensity activity regularly.

Regardless of your activity level, whether you run four miles five days a week, speed walk daily for 20 minutes, or vacuum your house four times a week, remember that exercise (even low-intensity) is better than remaining sedentary. However, immune system boosts occur with regular moderate activity.*

Suppose high-intensity training or physical exertion is maintained or performed without appropriate rest periods. In that case, it can have detrimental effects on the immune system. So, it isn’t a simple exercise that improves our immune system, but the cumulative time and intensity of the exercise matter.

*Exercises classified as moderate intensity raise your heart rate by 50% to 60% above resting levels. The target heart rates and levels of activity vary throughout age groups.

Get some sun

Ideally, getting out in the sunshine proves key to immune health. Humans do not produce vitamin D, a key vitamin for calcium homeostasis (balance) and many body processes. We can obtain this vitamin from food sources. However, a much more efficient means to get our daily vitamin D is through exposure of our skin to the sun.

When the weather permits, spend a few minutes outside daily or at least a few times a week. Vitamin D deficiency is prevalent worldwide; low vitamin D levels might compromise our immune systems. Thus, it’s a win-win situation if you can get some exercise and your recommended daily intake of vitamin D at the same time!

Regular exercise improves immune health

Everyone understands the power of exercise. However, engaging in regular moderate-intensity physical activity has long-lasting benefits. Routine exercise can protect the aging immune system, enhance immune function, decrease inflammation, improve the body’s ability to fight infections, and more. This is especially important in the winter months when respiratory infections peak. Regularly exercising may make the difference between that dreaded illness and enjoying your holidays with friends and family.

Not everyone benefits from the same kinds of exercise. Seek your doctor's advice before beginning any new form of physical activity, sport, or fitness program to ensure it is safe and appropriate for you.

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