How Exercise Boosts Your Immune System

By Amanda Mittleman, MS

The sedentary lifestyle has been a problem for people for many years now.  One of the biggest drawbacks of our the 2020 COVID-19 quarantine was that many already sedentary jobs became more sedentary.  Americans increased the number of hours sitting in front of the computer, phone, and TV screens because they had nowhere to go and nothing to do.

To live more empowered lives, we must look at the sources of chronic illness including inflammation and transform our lifestyles to support our mind, body and spirit.  Chronic illnesses including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer and more not only kill millions of people every year but they also destroy the quality of lives before taking lives.

Human beings are designed to move.  Our brain and body both thrive with movement.  Our brains’ even come equipped with a dopamine reward system to move.  If we didn’t move 10,000 years ago, we didn’t survive.

Many people begin exercising to lose weight.  But exercise not only strengthens your body, it also raises the levels of “feel-good” neurotransmitters in your brain, increases your overall energy, improves your digestions and it increases the strength of your immune system.

A 2019 scientific review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that exercise can improve your immune response, lower illness risk and reduce inflammation.

In this study, performed at the department of biology at Appalachian State University, researchers looked at moderate to vigorous intensity exercise lasting less than an hour. What researchers found was that as your muscles contract with exercise, blood and lymph flow increased all over the body and so does the circulation of immune cells.

The results of this study indicate that exercise increases the number of immune cells roaming around your body at all times.  When your immune cells are present and a virus gets into your body, it’s MUCH easier for your body to kill it before it begins to multiply and outnumber your fighter cells.

When you’re sedentary, those same immune cells hang out in your lymphoid organs, like the spleen.  So, a virus enters your body, and your immune cells are too busy taking a nap in your spleen to fight the virus, giving it plenty of time to hide itself and replicate more soldiers.

Exercise also recruits and mobilizes your most highly specialized immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells and T-cells.  These immune cells are your special forces-Navy Seal Teams, Army Ranger-like immune cells. NK and T-cells’ job is to search and destroy!  These are the cells that wipe out pathogens like bacteria and viruses on the spot.

Exercise will immediately increase the power of your immune system, but that increase will fade away if you don’t exercise consistently, just like brushing your teeth!

In 2011 the same research team (Neiman et al) published their research findings in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  They found that people who did aerobic exercise five or more days of the week lowered the number of upper respiratory tract infections (like the common cold) over a 12-week period by more than 40 percent!

You can’t exercise one day a week and expect to increase the power of your immune system to last.   If you brush your teeth once a week (yuck!) you’re not going to experience much benefit, you might even think brushing your teeth is a waste of time.  However, when you brush your teeth daily (two or even three times a day) your teeth are going to be in great shape.

The secret is to move your body daily and exercise at varying intensities. With consistency, your immune system will be better prepared to kill off any invaders immediately and keep you healthy.



Inflammation is a product of the immune system.  It’s actually a good thing when it’s in check.

When your immune system is working in harmony, inflammation fights pathogens like viruses and bacteria and it’s an important part of the healing process for wounds.  Inflammation is meant to protect us.  The problem arises when inflammation is out of balance.

Think of your body like Goldilocks.  Your body is comprised of many systems that and each system relies on a balance of not too much and not too little.

For example, we need insulin and cortisol to survive however if either or both get too high, we have problems. We want our heartbeat to increase when we exercise to supply blood to all of our muscles demanding more oxygen, and we need it to beat more slowly when we are at rest but a heartbeat that’s too fast or too slow is usually the source of serious problems.  Inflammation is the same.  We want our inflammation to rise during times when we need to fight off a pathogen or infection and then to come back down to baseline.

Unfortunately, way to many people are living in a state of chronic inflammation today.  Chronic inflammation is like a forest fire that’s perpetually burning inside of your body.  If you have a continuous fire in your body, ALL of your systems will have problems, including your brain.

An important side note, our mental health and our physical health are not separate.  Our brain is part of our body (physical) but it’s in charge of our thinking, which is mental.  There’s a whole field of research exploring this connection called psychoneuroimmunology.

Neuroinflammation is a component of psychoneuroimmunology in which scientists are studying the cytokine model of cognitive function.  Cytokines are pro-inflammatory cells that basically attack the brain and have been linked to anxiety, depression, fatigue and brain fog.

Simply stated, the amount of inflammation in your body affects how well ALL of your body systems function including your immune system.

A 2018 review article published in the Frontiers in Immunology found that exercise decreased inflammation in the body.


In 2004, the Journal of American Geriatrics Society published research that linked decreased levels of inflammatory markers to people who exercise more often and who have higher fitness levels.  To cut down inflammation start exercising today.  

Research shows indicates that between 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise is key for reducing inflammation and many other benefits.


Is There A Best Type of Exercise to Increase the Strength of My Immune System? 

Most researchers look at aerobic activity like walking, running, or cycling. However, there’s also a lot of research confirming that strength training is beneficial for both boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation.

To gain the many benefits from exercise the best type of exercise is vigorous and moderate exercise (60% to 70% or more of your max heart rate).  More specifically, moderate and vigorous exercise provides sufficient stimulus to recruit immune cells into your circulation.

Again, it doesn’t mean you have to participate in vigorous exercise every day.  What’s best is a variety of exercises, including strength training, cardiovascular training, and recovery exercises.

If you are a beginner to exercise, an hour of exercise is probably too much except for walking.  It’s important to start slow and to learn to work of developing effective functional movement patterns.  It’s well worth the investment to work with a world-class personal trainer so you build a strong foundation to incorporate exercise that you enjoy and that’s beneficial to your body, so you’ll continue to exercise for life.

Amanda Mittleman

Amanda Mittleman

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