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The immune system in our body is the first line of defense against different types of infections and disorders. It is consisted of many organs and numerous types of cells and tissues is dependent on a number of factors for proper functioning.
One such factor that boosts the immune process in our body is exercise. Exercise and body-conditioning have been noted to have a wide number of benefits on our body. Apart from increasing the strength and flexibility of our body exercises have a protective effect on many organs and tissues. Improvement in the circulation of blood following regular exercises leads to a number of benefits. Proper oxygen supply enhances the functioning of a number of organs including those involved in the production of immune cells. The accumulation of excess calories as fat is reduced through regular physical activity and exercise. This in turn prevents the occurrence of obesity and long list of associated disorders.

Improved Oxygen Supply

One of the mechanisms by which immune system function is said to be boosted is improved oxygen supply. The glands involved in the production of immune cells work more efficiently. This results in an increase in the number of matured immune cells that are able to attack harmful microorganisms and kill them easily. Similar benefits are noted with other techniques of body conditioning such as relaxation therapies, alternative therapies such as yoga, Tai Chi and several others. These alternative therapies also help in clearing the toxins collected throughout the body. Thereby the load on the immune system is decreased considerably.1 Some of the relaxation and meditation techniques focus on improvement of breathing techniques. The individuals who practice such techniques are taught about the methods of proper breathing and ways to control breathing. Following these methods for a considerable amount of time improves the breathing technique which ensures proper oxygen supply to the lungs. This results in enriched supply of oxygen to the oxygen carrying proteins of the blood cells and thereby improves the amount of oxygen being carried by the blood cells.

Improved Neutrophil Function, Reduced DNA Damage and Better Lymphocyte Function

Improved Neutrophil Function

Neutrophils belong to the group of cells referred to as phagocytes, which engulf and destroy waste of harmful substances in the body. Leading a sedentary life has a negative effect on the immune system wherein the activity of the immune cells is reduced. This may be attributed to sluggish blood flow. A study conducted in Spain reported that introduction of exercise in sedentary women resulted in an increase in immune activity. The study noted the actions of the neutrophils were increased to a significant extent following the initiation of exercise therapy. The ability of the neutrophils to engulf and kill harmful microorganisms was improved, and it was found the release of certain chemicals that signals the accumulation of immune cells was also increased.

Reduced DNA Damage

A study conducted in Malaysia upheld the benefits of Tai Chi on the immune system. The researchers noted that with prolonged practice Tai Chi resulted in improvements of the immune system. Older individuals are more prone to infections owing to the reason that the immune system tends to slow down as age progresses. Investigators of the study noted that older individuals who had been performing Tai Chi for a long duration of time had better immune cells, when compared to other adults. The immune cells had a higher concentration of normal DNA with less concentration of damaged DNAs. The study also revealed that regular exercises help in the removal the old lymphocytes and replacing them with newer lymphocytes.3

Better Lymphocyte Function

Lymphocytes form a major part of the immune system and are essential for the identification and destruction of harmful microorganisms. The efficacy of the lymphocytes and associated cells are notably reduced as age progresses. Performing regular exercise was noted to improve the functioning of the T-lymphocytes and helper cells in a study conducted in Japan. Proper regulation of the immune system can prevent the risk of developing infections and reduce the severity of a disease.

Improvement in the Natural Killer Cells and Hormone Release

Improvement in the Natural Killer Cells

Natural killer cells or NK cells seek and destroy harmful microorganisms that have been marked by the antibodies. Exercise also improves the functioning of these killer cells which in turn results in faster improvements from infections.

Improved Hormone Release

Stress has been associated with the release of hormones such as catecholamines and cortisol. These hormones are known to suppress the functioning of the immune system. The levels of these hormones are also high in individuals who lead a sedentary life. The resultant effect is increased vulnerability to infections. Regular exercise can reverse this effect by significantly reducing the levels of catecholamines. Further it also results in the increased formation and release of beneficiary hormones such as oestradiol (in women), that have a boosting effect on the immune system.
The benefits of exercise and body conditioning are widely researched topics in the field of medicine. The positive effect of exercise on the immune system is now becoming an accepted phenomenon. Studies by several researchers have thrown light on the mechanism by which exercise improves the immune function. It is now well proven that exercise not only helps in reducing weight or building muscles, but also helps improve the function of the immune system. However, it should be noted that exercising at very high intensities may have a suppressing effect rather than improving effect on the immune system. The American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity for a minimum of five days per week in case of adults between the ages 18–65 years.6 Adults older than 65 years may require exercises of lesser intensity. Also remember to consult with a healthcare provider before initiating exercises especially if you: have never exercised before, suffer from any underlying disorders/conditions, are taking any medications or have any other conditions that may be affected adversely.

  • 1. Saputo L, Faass N. Boosting Immunity: Creating Wellness Naturally. New World Library, 2002
  • 2. Giraldo E, Garcia JJ, Hinchado MD, Ortega E. Exercise intensity-dependent changes in the inflammatory response in sedentary women: role of neuroendocrine parameters in the neutrophil phagocytic process and the pro-/anti-inflammatory cytokine balance. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2009, 16(4):237-44. Epub 2009 Apr 9
  • 3. Goon JA, Noor Aini AH, Musalmah M, Yasmin Anum MY, Wan Ngah WZ. Long term Tai Chi exercise reduced DNA damage and increased lymphocyte apoptosis and proliferation in older adults. Med J Malaysia. 2008 Oct, 63(4):319-24
  • 4. Shimizu K, Kimura F, Akimoto T, Akama T, et al. Effect of moderate exercise training on T-helper cell subpopulations in elderly people. Exerc Immunol Rev. 2008, 14:24-37
  • 5. Timmons BW, Cieslak T. Human natural killer cell subsets and acute exercise: a brief review. Exerc Immunol Rev. 2008, 14:8-23
  • 6. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1200013
  • Photo courtesy of Fit Approach by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/fitapproach/6898616069