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Exercise boosts your immune system — up to a point. A neat new paper in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise digs a little deeper into this complicated relationship between exercise and immune function. Specifically, it looks into the response of neutrophils:
When infection occurs, neutrophils rapidly migrate to the infection site (chemotaxis) and ingest the pathogens (phagocytosis).
So how does exercise affect these neutrophils? Well, that depends on what kind of exercise you do. For regular, moderate exercise (“CME,” or “chronic moderate exercise,” consisting of 30 minutes of moderate cycling daily for two months), here are the results:
“DT” is “detraining.” So you can clearly see that regular, moderate exercise boosts the ability of the neutrophils to get to infection sites quickly (chemotaxis) and attack the bad guys (phagocytosis). And in fact, the neutrophils are still ultra-alert for a couple of months after you stop training. In addition, the researchers found that regular exercise extended the life of the neutrophils.
On the other hand, the effects of “acute severe exercise” (an incremental test to exhaustion) had more mixed results. Chemotaxis was enhanced, but phagocytosis wasn’t, and the lifespan of the neutrophils was shortened — not so good for immune function.
So is this a surprise? Not really — it’s been clear for a long time that exercise has a J-shaped influence on immune function. Some is good, more is better, but beyond a certain point, too much is bad. Run a marathon, you’ll have a slightly elevated risk of catching a cold (or at least suffering from some sort of respiratory symptoms) afterward. But studies like this are needed to understand what exactly is happening in the body, so that eventually we’ll have a better idea of exactly where the curve in the J starts — and possibly figure out some ways to extend the sweet spot of the curve.