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Exercise Is the Immune System Booster You Need Right Now

woman overlooking city stretching for exercise
Michael  W. Smith, MD - Blogs
By Michael W. Smith, MDBoard-certified internistMarch 31, 2020

Most of us have gone through life not thinking much about our immune system. It’s there. We’ve always just trusted it’s doing the best it can to protect us from infections and cancer. That sure has changed! Our immune systems are now top of mind as we do everything we can to stay safe from COVID-19.

You do have some control over the health of your immune system. Good nutrition may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of boosting your immunity, but it’s not the only healthy habit that makes a difference. Exercise can be a powerful tool in keeping you safe from illness.

So, while I understand this new normal can serve as an easy excuse to be lazy, don’t stop exercising – it’s more important now than ever.

Let’s talk moderate exercise first – a level of exercise equivalent to a brisk walk. Most of us live in an area where a brisk walk outside is still perfectly safe. Just maintain proper social distancing, keeping at least 6 feet between you and anyone else. Or hop on that treadmill that’s been serving as a clothes hanger for far too long.

With each walk, your immune system gets a little stronger. Activity of germ-fighting immune system cells increases – these “natural killer cells” are particularly adept at killing off dangerous invaders. With each workout, our immune systems also pump out natural antibodies and anti-inflammatory cytokines to help wipe out attackers. Over time, these temporary increases can permanently pump up our immune system and lower inflammation, so developing a consistent exercise habit is key!

Here’s even better news comes for those who aren’t into vigorous exercise like jogging. Extended bouts (over 60 minutes) of high-intensity exercise can increase stress hormones, potentially decreasing immune system activity. This doesn’t happen with moderate exercise. You also don’t need to go on extra-long brisk walks to get the benefit. Research shows this positive effect on our immune systems with moderate exercise under 60 minutes.

How do you get started if you’re not already active? Just move more today than you did yesterday. Baby steps are best. If the activity you’re most used to is sitting, you’re not doing anyone any good by jumping into an intense exercise. Prevent injury by getting your body used to moving. As you get more comfortable, you can slowly ramp it up to the next level. Slowly!

For beginners and experienced exercisers, it’s easier than ever to get a good workout at home. No equipment is required. If you like lifting weights, now is a great time to invest in a good set.

Many fitness experts have taken to online instruction and classes. If this is all new to you or you’ve been out of the game for a while, look for beginner or light workouts – or ones that offer modifications for those just starting out. If you’re ready to take your fitness to the next level, fitness apps and online programs are everywhere these days. Find a few favorite social media fitness gurus. Many create free, daily beginner and advanced workouts.

To round out your immune-boosting healthy habit routine, load up on vegetables and lean protein, a serving or two a fruit a day, get 7-8 hours of sleep at night (keep a regular schedule, just like you did when you worked outside the home), and find ways to decrease the effects of stress. Exercise is a great stress-busting tool, along with deep breathing exercises. Your immune system will thank you.

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About the Author
Michael W. Smith, MD

Michael Smith, MD, CPT, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and WebMD’s Chief Medical Editor. He is also an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer with a passion for helping people live a healthy, active lifestyle. He appears regularly as an expert on national and local broadcast media.

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