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The #1 Best Exercise for Your Immune System, Says Science

Ready to bolster your natural defenses? It's time to put one foot in front of the other.

You already know that a consistent exercise regimen can do wonders for your physical health, wellness, and wellbeing. While most people are aware that exercising promotes a better mood, many may be surprised to learn that working out also boosts the immune system. Considered the human body's natural defense system against bacteria, viruses, and toxins, a robust and properly functioning immune system is something we all need—especially as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Though the full scope of how and why exercise benefits the immune system so isn't entirely clear, the National Institutes of Health explains that when we exercise, it causes both antibodies and white blood cells to circulate throughout the body at a faster pace. This likely makes it easier for the immune system to detect and respond to potential health threats. Furthermore, exercise impedes the release of stress hormones, which are known to weaken overall immunity.

A study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science even concludes that moderate to vigorous exercise lasting less than 60 minutes helps boost immune responses and lowers both illness risk and bodily inflammation levels.

Now that you know a little bit of exercise can go a long way toward warding off illness, you may be wondering which type of workout you should choose. Keep reading to learn about the #1 best exercise for your immune system. And if you love to walk as your main form of fitness, make sure you're aware of The Secret Cult Walking Shoe That Walkers Everywhere Are Obsessed With.

A brisk walk reigns supreme


Who says exercise needs to be really hard to produce results? All it takes is a nice, brisk walk to help your immune system kick into overdrive. One study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reports that just a 30 minute session of brisk walking greatly increases both natural killer cells and various types of white blood cells, all of which are considered important parts of the immune system's defense structure.

However, there is one important caveat here. Those elevated cell counts dissipate after a few hours. So, a brisk walk on Monday may not necessarily help your immune system if it encounters a pathogen on Wednesday. But there's good news: According to study co-author David Nieman, a professor of public health and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, a consistent walking habit is enough to keep the immune system humming.

"If you have a housekeeper come in and clean for 30 minutes every day, by the end of the month, your house will look a lot better," he told Time. "I think the same thing that happens with the immune system and pathogen clearance in the body."

Another research project, this one published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, tracked a group of 1,000 participants during flu season. Those who consistently went for a walk at a moderate pace experienced fewer upper respiratory tract infections and 43% fewer days spent feeling under the weather! Even when such individuals did come down with the flu or a cold, their symptoms were much milder than their more sedentary peers. And for more on the benefits of walking, check out Exactly How Fast You Need to Walk to Live Longer, Says Science.

Pumping iron helps, too

Older people lifting weights in gym

While most immune system and exercise research has focused on cardio over weight lifting, there's also ample scientific reason to believe that maintaining a healthy amount of muscle mass helps keep immunity strong.

"If you have a healthy muscle mass across the lifespan then you have a reserve of amino acids that helps your immune system respond quickly to infection and disease," Dr. Craig Wright, senior lecturer at Deakin University's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, told The Sydney Morning Herald. "As we age those with more muscle mount a better immune response which leads to less time being sick."

Moreover, research published in the Journal of Immunology Research concludes that a single bout of resistance training and weight lifting also boosts the white blood cell count in the body afterward.

Don't fear intensity (in moderation)

hiit workout

If running over walking is more your style, revving up the intensity of your workout is fine, too. Many have long believed that going extra hard during a workout results in a drop in immune strength, but multiple recent studies have debunked that outdated view.

This one, published in Frontiers in Immunology, states "limited reliable evidence exists to support the claim that vigorous exercise heightens risk of opportunistic infections." Study authors also conclude: "We emphasize that it is a misconception to label any form of acute exercise as immunosuppressive, and, instead, exercise most likely improves immune competency across the lifespan."

That being said, it's a good idea not to exercise at maximum intensity for more than roughly 75 minutes. "When you go that long at a high intensity, stress hormones go way up, and the immune system does not respond well to that," Prof. Nieman adds. And for more great walking tips you can use, don't miss these Bad Walking Habits Every Walker Should Quit, Say Experts.

Soak in some sun

Triathlon - Triathlete man running in triathlon suit training for ironman race. Male runner exercising on Big Island Hawaii. Sunset.

As an added immunity bonus, try getting in your workouts outdoors during the day. The extra vitamin D provided by the sun's rays will also provide a boost to your immune system.

Recent research published in MedRxiv even concludes that a vitamin D deficiency may put individuals at a greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms in the event of infection. And for more tips on becoming a better walker starting now, see here for The Secret Tricks for Walking for Exercise, According to Walking Specialists.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more about John
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