A strong immune system is important especially for athletes because if they get sick it results in a reduced training load/intensity and thus reduced performance. Therefore athletes need to ensure adequate nutrition, rest and sleep is maintained to reduce both injury risk, and prolonged “off days” by being sick.
In the past, exercise was believed to be potentially associated with reduced immunity, due to the so-called “open-window theory” (where your immune function was thought to decline immediately after exercising, thus providing an “open-window” for pathogens to proliferate). Over the recent years, this theory has been largely challenged, and a growing number of scientists now acknowledge the beneficial impact that acute and chronic exercise has on immune health.
The “cross stress adaptation theory” suggests that as acute exercise and acute psychological stress both provoke similar physiological responses such as the release of stress hormones. By training one response such as exercise can improve adaptations to other unrelated stressors such as psychological stress therefore exercise could also improve immune function by reducing stress load.
This week I got the privilege to interview an Assistant Professor in Exercise Immunology who is heavily involved in the immune response to exercise research. Specifically, the impact that exercise and psychological stress has on the immune function. His research is aimed at finding exercise-based alternatives to drugs and therapies used to improve immunity in at-risk populations (whether these are athletes, older adults or individuals with stressful lives and jobs). Below is the transcript to our interview.
Where do you see your field of research heading in the next 50 years?
As the effects of different modes of exercise (aerobic exercise, strength training, High Intensity Interval Training etc…) on immunity becomes clearer in the upcoming years, one can hypothesize that the next decade will see the rise of personalized exercise interventions to treat specific immune-related ailments.
What implications does your research have for endurance athletes/general population?
The goal of my research is to develop exercise programs to economically and safely improve immunity in athletes and the general population. This could provide crucial in an aging worldwide population.
What should endurance athletes do to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury?
Athletes often overlook the power of recovery and sleep. Both Immune function and muscle recovery/growth rely on adequate rest and sleep, if an athlete over-trains and neglect proper sleep hygiene, they are more likely to injure themselves and lose the training-induced adaptations they are after.
Should they take supplements?
Ergogenic aids and supplements can help optimize athletic training, and even in some cases maintain health. I would however caution athletes in taking supplements without thoroughly understanding their effects. Per example, a certain level of oxidative stress/inflammation is required to induce muscular adaptations to training (ie growth). In this case, if the athlete is looking to gain muscle mass for a specific event, supplementing with antioxidants may not be the appropriate strategy.
What is the optimal level of exercise for a healthy immune system and general health benefits?
In general, it is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine to participate in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per day for 5 days a week. This should also be supplemented with resistance exercise.
Any other tips or recommendations for people who want to improve their immune system?
Overall, I would recommend for people to stay active, allow adequate rest and recovery between workouts, and more importantly sleep at least 7-9 hours per night.