Exercise as You Age May Boost Your Immune System

If you’re like me, there are days after work that the last thing you want to do is exercise. I’m also not good at morning or lunch workouts, so oftentimes I just slog through it anyway. Now a new study provides yet another reason to suck it up. Turns out exercise may also boost your immune system.

The Immune System and Its Functions

The primary purpose of our immune system is to keep us healthy. It does this by fighting off foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.) before they can take over and do significant or permanent damage. For example, did you know that every day, cancerous cells are present in our bodies, but a healthy immune system attacks them, killing these cells before they become active and cancer results? With those stakes, is there a way to boost your immune system?

If our immune system is unhealthy or weakened in some way, clearly fighting off invaders is a lot more challenging, and when it simply can’t keep up, this leads to chronic sickness or disease. If the immune system fails to defeat the flu, for example, sickness can linger for weeks or months, even causing pneumonia and in severe cases death. Of if cancer cells slip by, a tumor may be on its way. So the immune system has a huge job to do. And it does this job using a variety of immune cells that each have specific functions. These include T cells and B cells (produced by stem cells in our bone marrow), phagocytes (typically kill invaders by consuming them), basophils, and many, many more.

There is a gradual decline in immune system function that starts in our 20s and continues as we age. As we experience this progressive weakening of our immune system, this hinders its ability to protect us from disease, such as cancer and arthritis. Now, a new study suggests regular exercise may actually bost your immune system and keep it healthy and strong by preventing this decline as we age.

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Exercise May Boost Your Immune System and Prevent Its Decline as We Age

Knowing that aging is associated with a decrease in immune function (termed immunesenescence in the study), researchers set out to investigate if consistent exercise while aging positively impacted the immune system. The new study consisted of 125 long-term physically active long-distance cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79 as well as 130 healthy people who were not regularly active (75 in the same age group and 55 younger adults). Researchers studied T cells, CD4, CD8, cytokines, and other immune system levels. The results? The immune functions of the cyclists were not only significantly better than their healthy, inactive counterparts (the older healthy people) but were, in fact, in some cases (e.g., T-cell production) equivalent to the healthy, inactive younger adults.

Researchers concluded that the immune system decline could be the result of the decrease in exercise as we age, suggesting that staying active can help negate this effect and boost your immune system.

More on Our Fascinating Immune System

The immune system works in a myriad of ways and with many other systems to prevent disease and keep us healthy. Platelets, for example, are also essential to helping the immune system do its job as they trap invading bacteria so phagocytes called neutrophils (circulating white blood cells) can quickly destroy them and gobble them up. In addition, the immune system is fiercely loyal to its own native host. I’ve also covered studies showing that introducing someone else’s stem cells (allogeneic stem cells) into a person angers that person’s immune system, causing it to attack the invading foreign stem cells.

We’ve also seen the immune system at play, according to one study, in dementia. In this case the microglial cells (phagocytes) in the brain lacked a gene expression that if activated would allow them to respond to damaged areas and devour debris and dead cells in the brain. Researchers suggested that finding ways to activate these immune cells may delay dementia.

There are also conditions that can cause the immune system to not recognize its own host and attack it. This is called autoimmunity, and you’ve likely heard of many autoimmune conditions. They include type-1 diabetes (the immune system attacks the pancreas), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (the immune system attacks the thyroid), and rheumatoid arthritis (the immune system attacks the affected joint).

The upshot? Now we all have another reason to “Just Show Up.” Meaning, that even if you don’t feel like hitting the gym or bike or taking that hike or run, do it anyway. Your immune system will thank you!

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.