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Exercise and the Immune System

Our immune systems have the important role of protecting our bodies against communicable diseases such as viral and bacterial infections, and non-communicable diseases such as cancer and chronic inflammatory disorders. Research indicates that regular physical activity or structured exercise can alter the immune cell population in the bloodstream during and after exercise, protecting us from abnormal cells and free radicals developing into various illnesses and chronic conditions.


The Immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, organs and the substances they make that helps the body fight infections and other diseases. This includes the white blood cells, organs and tissues of the lymph system.

The lymph system is made up of the thymus, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes, lymph vessels and bone marrow

Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory steroids that treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and vasculitis. These diseases are all autoimmune conditions which make the immune system go into overdrive. The steroids reduce inflammation and lower immune system function and can therefore sometimes cause immunosuppression.
How can exercise help those who are immunocompromised?

Immunodeficiency disorders impair the immune system’s ability to defend the body against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancer cells. As a result, it’s much easier to contract a serious disease, infection or some cancers. It may take a person much longer to recover from an illness than someone with a normal functioning immune system. There are a few reasons someone may have a compromised immune system including:

— Cancer treatments
— Treatments after receiving an organ or stem cell transplant
— High-dose Corticosteroids to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and vasculitis.
— DiGeorge syndrome
— Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome
— Bruton’s agammaglobulinemia
— As we age our immune systems capability becomes reduced
— Children are also more susceptible as they build their immune system in their early years

Exercise initiates changes in antibodies and white blood cells by helping them circulate more rapidly during a workout or a physical activity. White blood cells protect our body against infectious diseases and foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria.

Research shows that performing regular exercises of medium intensity, or bringing a change to a sedentary lifestyle by introducing some sort of movement can improve the immune response to vaccinations, and various immune markers in diseases like HIV, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cognitive impairment, obesity and cancer. It also helps in resistance against influenza, rhinovirus and herpes viruses.

Regular exercise for the older population can also help slow down the changes taking place in the immune system as a result of ageing, resulting in the reduction of the risk of getting infections, diseases and illnesses.

What to do next?

With the colder weather approaching and flu season upon us, it could be a good idea to start building a routine that can boost your immune system - especially those who are more susceptible to contracting viruses and diseases. Remember to always start small and increase slowly.

Don’t overdo it. Over exercising can do more harm than good to the immune system. Knowing your limits and listening to your body is essential in maintaining a healthy amount of exercise that is right for you

Other things to take into consideration when coming into winter and flu season include maintaining a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, reducing stress and keeping up hygiene practices like washing hands regularly.


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