Staying active as we age pays off in many ways. One benefit of physical activity is that it helps our bodies fight illness.
As we age, our immune system declines. Our bodies have fewer immune cells, and they don’t work as well. So if we get sick, the illness may be more severe. Recovery can take longer and we may not respond as well as younger people do to vaccines.
The good news: We can fight that trend with regular physical activity
Every time we’re physically active, we get our blood pumping and circulating through our bodies. In that pumping blood are the immune cells that go out to look for and fight infections.
Being physically active in a regular way can increase the number of these immune cells and improve how they function. That’s true, no matter how old we are.
Recent research shows that physically active older adults were less likely to need a hospital stay with COVID-19. In addition, those who were admitted to the hospital had shorter stays.
The research also shows that physically active older adults produce more antibodies (immune cells) than other seniors do after they get the flu vaccine.
Staying active helps to manage chronic conditions
Chronic illnesses are problems like diabetes and heart disease. Having a chronic condition puts people at risk of getting severely ill with viral infections like the flu and COVID-19.
We know that staying active helps to manage many chronic conditions. The healthier we are, the better we are at fighting viral infections.
What type of physical activity is best for boosting the immune system?
Following current public health physical activity recommendations will provide the right type of activity for supporting the immune system:
- Do moderate aerobic exercise. This type of exercise makes you breathe faster and increases your heart rate. That increases blood flow (circulation) through your body. This increase in circulation allows immune cells to travel farther into places like the lungs and fight infected cells when you get sick.
- Your regular aerobic exercise sessions can be in short amounts of time but should add up to about 2.5 hours a week.
Stronger muscles are important because muscles are a source of many proteins. Like antibodies, proteins play a powerful role in immune function.
- On top of aerobic exercise, do things that strengthen your muscles. Exercises involving weight or walking strengthen the major muscle groups, such as the arms and legs.
- Do strength-building activities 2–3 times per week.
Being active benefits you at any age
How you exercise your heart, lungs, and muscles is up to you — do things that you enjoy. Start slowly and build up your stamina if you haven’t been active lately. The goal is to get to regular physical activity that challenges you in a healthy, safe way.