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Regular Physical Activity Boosts Immune Function, May Increase Vaccine Efficacy

Getting vaccinated

Key Takeaways

  • Exercise can help keep you from getting sick when exposed to a virus, and could improve vaccine response as well, new research suggests.
  • Those who exercised regularly had higher antibody concentration after vaccination, researchers found.
  • Experts add that going outside can be another immunity boost, and can also help pandemic-related mental health concerns.

Regular physical activity not only reduces your chances of getting sick from infectious diseases but may also improve your immune system response to a COVID-19 vaccine, according to new research in Sports Medicine.

Researchers looked at 55 studies involving more than half a million participants and found that meeting recommended guidelines for physical activity—30 minutes per day at least five days weekly—reduced the risk of acquiring an infectious disease by 31%. They also saw a 37% reduction in mortality among those who did fall ill.

Also, those who reported regular exercise showed higher antibody concentration after vaccination, which led researchers to conclude that physical activity increases the potency of vaccine shots.

"That’s because regular physical activity increases the number of T-cells and CD4 cells, which both play a major role in immune function," says study co-author Sebastien Chastin, PhD, of the School of Health and Life Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

How Exercise Plays a Role

According to Chastin, there are several main ways that physical activity can help protect against infectious diseases.

First is that those who exercise regularly are less likely to develop chronic conditions like diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and obesity—which have all been shown to negatively affect the immune system.

Sebastien Chastin, PhD

Regular physical activity increases the number of T-cells and CD4 cells, which both play a major role in immune function

— Sebastien Chastin, PhD

Secondly, physical activity reduces inflammation and stress, which can also cause less effective immune regulation, he says.

Finally, the immune system gets stronger through physical activity. That means regular exercise keeps the system running efficiently, which lowers the risk of infection.

Increasing the Boost

Physical activity in general is an immune booster, but to make it even more powerful, there’s an additional tactic: Go outside.

Published in Lancet Public Health, a World Health Organization review of nine major studies from seven countries—and representing over 8 million people—on green spaces and all-cause mortality found there’s an association between exposure to green spaces even in urban areas and better public health.

“The takeaway message here is that green space is good for health, and people living in greener areas live longer,” said co-author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, PhD, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. “We also know that green space can lead to more physical activity, especially if we make it a social activity, and all of that improves the immune system.”

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, PhD

We also know that green space can lead to more physical activity, especially if we make it a social activity, and all of that improves the immune system.

— Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, PhD

Getting outside, exercising, and being with friends and family can provide another important aspect to dealing with COVID as well, which is mitigating the mental and emotional health struggles the pandemic has caused, adds researcher Masashi Soga, PhD, of the University of Tokyo.

For example, he and his colleagues used online questionnaires to determine the effects of outdoor time with outcomes like life satisfaction, happiness, and self-esteem.

"Our findings suggest a regular dose of nature can contribute to the improvement of a wide range of mental health outcomes, and that's important right now because of the possible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic," he says.

Thinking Long Term

Although public health focus has been on immediate concern such as vaccination rates and spread of the COVID virus in hot spots around the world, many experts believe the virus will remain in some form for years, if not decades—similar to the flu, says Chastin.

“As we try to immunize the world, the most likely scenario for the next few years is that COVID-19 will be like other infectious diseases,” he states. “We will need to continuously manage and protect ourselves against it.”

Similar to protecting yourself from the flu, that might mean vaccine booster shots, but also other strategies like frequent handwashing, staying away from people who are ill, and implementing behaviors that are known to improve immune system function, such as:

  • Not smoking
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Managing stress
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting regular, quality sleep
  • Stay hydrated
  • Maintain a healthy weight

Also, getting checkups and screenings is important for more effectively managing any health concerns that may impact your immune system as well.

What This Means For You

Integrating more physical activity and movement into your everyday life can offer a range of health benefits, from sleeping better to improving muscle mass, and a major advantage is improving your immune system function—both immediately and into the future.

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  1. Chastin SFM, Abaraogu U, Bourgois JG, et al. Effects of regular physical activity on the immune system, vaccination and risk of community-acquired infectious disease in the general population: systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. Published online April 20, 2021. doi:0.1007/s40279-021-01466-1

  2. Rojas-Rueda D, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ, Gascon M, Perez-Leon D, Mudu P. Green spaces and mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lancet Planet Health. 2019;3(11):e469-e477. doi:10.1016/S2542-5196(19)30215-3

  3. Soga M, Evans MJ, Tsuchiya K, Fukano Y. A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID‐19 pandemicEcol Appl. 2021;31(2):e2248. doi:10.1002/eap.2248