We often hear about the many health benefits of exercise. From reducing blood pressure to strengthening the heart and lungs, consistent workouts have been shown to provide an array of physical and mental health perks that touch nearly every system in the body.
Included in this plethora of benefits? The immune-boosting potential of getting in a good workout—something many of us are starting to think about this time of year.
However, while the right type of exercise in the right intensity and duration can bolster your immune system, doing too much, too hard, or skipping hygiene essentials in a germy gym can be a recipe for catching something that gets you sick.
What’s the best type of exercise to boost immunity?
Bias aside, yoga teacher Tatyana Souza, who has a PhD of immunology and is also the owner of Coolidge Yoga in Boston, says that one of the best exercises to boost the immune system is yoga.
“Studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, which in turn leads to less inflammation,” she says. “It can also reduce inflammatory markers in the blood.”
In many ways, yoga is ideal for promoting optimal immune function because it combines elements of movement, breathing, and meditation.
“The active yoga poses target muscles, joints, circulatory and the lymphatic systems. The postures improve the movement of lymphatic fluid in the body, which improves the function of your immune system,” explains Dr. Souza. “Postures also have a pro-digestion effect, which also helps your immune system. The active postures can also help to create more space around your lungs and help bring blood and circulation into your chest, throat, and nose to help the mucous membranes of your body (our first line of defense against foreign invaders) perform better.”
She adds that another quality of yoga that makes it uniquely beneficial for supporting the immune system is the emphasis on breathing exercises, meditation, and restorative poses. These calming activities work to activate the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system and quiet the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system, which is normally active during times of stress.
“This results in reduction in stress and stress hormones, improves the quality of sleep, and gives the body permission to be in ‘rest and digest’ mode, when the body can better digest, process toxins, process information from our day, and repair any damage on a molecular level,” shares Dr. Souza. “All these processes help to make our bodies more resilient when facing an outside attack.”
So, is it only yoga that can improve the immune system?
Nope. Studies also show that aerobic exercise can reduce inflammation, support the gut microbiota that fight pathogens, improve the activity of immune cells, and reduce the risk of infections. Any type of physical activity that gets you to at least 50 percent of your maximum heart rate for a sustained period of time counts—you can run, walk, cycle, row, hike, use the elliptical machine, climb stairs, or take Zumba as long as your heart rate is elevated.
When working out backfires
Although exercise has the potential to support your immune system, Dr. Souza says doing too much can tip the scales in the other direction.
“Any exercise that causes too much strain on the body and upregulates stress hormones for a prolonged period of time would impact our immune systems negatively,” she says. “An example would be endurance training where you work the body for two to three hours per day of vigorous physical activity like running or biking, multiple times per week. Strenuous workouts like CrossFit and HIIT done daily can also lead to your stress hormones being out of balance.”
If you are trying to stave off colds and flus, focus on moderation and make sure that you are getting adequate recovery between hard efforts.
7 tweaks to make to your workout to stay healthy
People work out for all different reasons. But if you want to take advantage of a fitness routine to help you stay healthy, Dr. Souza recommends letting these tips guide your approach to exercise:
1. Mix up your workouts
Rather than going for a run every single day, for instance, make sure that you are following a well-rounded exercise program that includes different types of movement. “Everything is okay in moderation,” says Dr. Souza. “If you are exercising daily, change it up with some days of cardio, some days of weight training, and some days of restorative yoga and meditation.”
2. Skip the marathon sessions
“Keep your workouts between 20 and 60 minutes. So, there is a short duration of stress followed by rest,” says Dr. Souza
3. Try yoga
Even if you love nothing more than lifting heavy weights, there is undeniably an immune-boosting benefit to adding yoga to your workout routine. Dr. Souza says, “A yoga practice like vinyasa flow mixed in with some yin yoga can be just the right balance of tension and relaxation to make your immune system, nervous system, and muscular system be at their best.”
Give this calming yoga flow for stress relief a shot:
4: Work in some meditation and breathing
To replicate some of the unique benefits of yoga, incorporate meditation and breathing exercises into your routine. This doesn’t have to be lengthy—even a few minutes a day can work wonders for your immune system and mental health.
5. Don’t forget to stretch
Once you’ve finished your last rep, give your body time to cool down rather than jumping right into the next thing on your to-do list. “Always finish with stretches that can lengthen out your muscles, detoxify the lymph, and bring your nervous system into a down-regulated state,” says Dr. Souza. “Include movements like twists, forward folds, side stretches, backbends, and inversions for the ultimate immune system boost.”
6. Practice good hygiene
If you’re working out in a public space like a gym or fitness studio, make sure you wash your hands after your workout. Avoid touching your face while you use shared exercise equipment like weights or even a yoga mat.
7. Listen to your body
If you sense a cold, infection, or virus coming on, take a rest day. Nurture your immune system with vitamin C, zinc, good nutrition, and plenty of sleep.