When you lace up your sneakers to hit the pavement, your immune system might not be the first thing on your mind. You may run as a way to relieve stress or improve your heart health. Your goal may be weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight. But whatever your motivation is, regular exercise like running has a lot of health benefits and one of them is a healthier immune system.
Running can boost your immune system in several ways. It's not just running though. Any regular exercise can help. While scientists haven't figured out exactly how, there are a few theories that many experts seem to agree on:
- Exercise increases breathing rate, which helps push bacteria and other pathogens out of your lungs and airways. This can reduce the chance of getting sick because the pathogens aren't able to cause an infection.
- Exercise helps decrease chronic inflammation, which can make your immune system healthier.
- Exercise boosts white blood cells and antibodies, which are both important in your immune health and fighting off disease.
- When you exercise, your body temperature rises, which helps your body fight off infection and prevents bacteria from multiplying – similar to how a fever works.
- Exercise decreases stress and lowers the amount of stress hormones in your body. Since stress decreases immune function, this can help make your immune system stronger.
How Much Exercise Do You Need?
The good news is that you don't need to run a lot to get immune-boosting benefits. One study found that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise each day can trigger anti-inflammatory responses and positive effects on your immune system.
Make sure you're not running too much either. Research shows that prolonged marathon-style running, or any intense training or competitive exercise, can decrease your immune function for 3 to 72 hours. Some people even experience upper respiratory tract illness symptoms, like congestion, sneezing and coughing for a couple of days after prolonged strenuous endurance events.
If you're new to running, start slow and work your way up to 20 to 30 minutes per day. If you already run regularly, there's no need to overdo it. Just keep doing what you're doing.
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Date Last Reviewed: April 13, 2020
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor