The benefits of exercise to your health are plentiful. Most of us are at least vaguely aware that for good physical and mental health, we should aim to be physically active. It can help reduce your risk of some cancers, reduce the risk of developing metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes and can help you maintain a healthy weight1. Fewer are aware of how physical activity can improve the immune system’s ability to fight off germs, reduce inflammation and keep us well.
Vitamins and supplements will only get you so far when it comes to immune support. Regular physical activity plays a vitally important role in keeping your immune system healthy. Let’s first take a quick refresher on how the immune system works. Your immune system is made up of molecules, cells, organs, tissues, and even reflexes such as your cough reflex, mucus and the friendly microbes that live on and in us. Its main job is to repel or limit infections and other potentially damaging substances getting into our body. It also helps prevent other disease such as cancer and metabolic conditions such as type two diabetes2.
Specifically for your immune system, physical activity supports your immune system via several different pathways. For example, it promotes good circulation., This allows your immune cells to move easily and freely around your body, surveying your body for invading germs and helping them fight infection efficiently. It also helps increase the number of circulating immune cells and their molecules. This helps tune up your defences, so they are better prepared to respond effectively. These improvements are seen for 3 hours following after a single bout of exercise such as a brisk walk3. Physical activity also improves how your immune system regulates itself, helping protect against autoimmune and allergic disease. It is also anti-inflammatory, helping remove unwanted inflammation which can be damaging for our body. Indirectly exercise can support the immune system by contributing to better overall sleep quantity and quality and reducing stress.
Modern advances make our lives easier, but they've led many of us to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. Moving less and sitting for long periods of time means we are missing out on all these immune supporting benefits. Additionally, sedentary time is linked to a number of negative health effects and is believed to be a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. The current NHS guidance for adults is simply 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week4. But with many of us working on computers for long periods, this has resulted in a rise in sedentary behaviour and a growing number of people not achieving this. There is an important distinction between a person who is sedentary and a person who is physically inactive. Being ‘physically inactive’ means not doing enough physical activity (in other words, not meeting the physical activity guidelines). However, being ‘sedentary’ means sitting for long periods e.g., at your computer for work. Sedentary time is now considered an independent risk factor for a whole host of health conditions including inflammatory disease and infection. This means, even if you go to the gym regularly, it cannot undo the potential damage from long periods of sedentary time.
The good news is that breaking up sedentary time and being more physically active doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym. Many of us are put off exercise by memories of school PE lessons or past visits to the gym. Despite what we might think, running on a treadmill for an hour or hitting an intense gym class isn’t the only form of exercise! Reframe exercise as ‘movement’ and drop the rules. We are more likely to repeatedly do things that we enjoy. What’s important is getting your heart rate up and using your muscles – it doesn’t matter how you do it. Your workout also doesn’t need to last as long as you think. Aim for the 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week and go from there. Remember you can split this as you see fit, and even break it down into short bursts. Any activity is better than none, and more is better still. My ethos is that we just need to move more, move more often, and move in lots of different ways.
Don’t worry if the gym isn’t for you, from gardening and skipping to dancing to music, there are plenty of fun alternatives that meet the criteria. It’s just about moving more in your daily activities. Set a timer to get up from your computer every 45 minutes and spend 5 mins moving. Put on some music and tackle that list of cleaning chores in your home. Try engaging your core while prepping dinner. Leveraging the power of movement specifically through dance is a fun way to get all those immunity benefits. Regular dance sessions have been shown to improve blood cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health5,6. Dance has also been shown to lower stress7, a known immunity disruptor, and have broad health benefits including improving cognitive function and brain health8,9.
These small, at-home or do it anywhere practices are a great way to squeeze in your exercise, so those minutes all add up. The more you move, the more it starts to become a habit. The key is to just get out there and get your body used to the small bursts of daily activity, and form that habit. Studies show that the benefits of physical activity really start to accumulate once it becomes a routine habit. Habitual moderate to vigorous exercise reduces the risk of upper respiratory tract infections (like the common cold) over a 12-week period by more than 40%10. A review of 16 scientific studies of people who stayed physically active during the pandemic found that regular exercising was associated with a lower risk of infection and a lower likelihood of severe COVID-1911.
Wanting to make exercise a habit and actually doing it are two different things. But there are some strategies that can make it easier to stick with an exercise habit. Habits are things that you repeat over and over again until they are done without effort and fit seamlessly into your life. This means they are also things that require you to start over and over again. So find a way to make the starting easier. Stack your daily small movement moments on top of a current habit like brushing your teeth or boiling the kettle. Start small, so small that you can’t say no. Make it fun, focus on developing and enjoying movement habits first, not the results.