How Exercise Helps Your Immune System

Taking Time to Sweat Specifically Targets Immune Cells

While exercise is one of the best healthy habits you can adopt overall, there is research that suggests your workouts are strengthening not only your muscles, but the cells that make up your immune system as well. Research published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that 60 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity temporarily boosts the circulation of neutrophils, natural killer (NK) and cytotoxic T cells. “These are the cells of the immune system that help us mount an immune response to invading pathogens like bacteria or viruses,” Dr. Tolentino says. 

This improved circulation may also help the immune system efficiently scan what’s happening inside the body. (Think of it as an internal security guard.) “Research suggests that over time, this might lead to the enhancements of surveillance, which is how the immune system monitors the body for signs of infection or injury that require an immune response,” Dr. Tolentino says. “This is what helps to reduce systemic inflammation in the body.” Inflammation can lead to conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, making the surveillance characteristic of your immune system a crucial part in protecting your health long term, on top of staying protected from the cold and flu. 

A Little Movement Can Go a Long Way

The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise weekly, but there’s no hard and fast rule about how much exercise will directly impact your immune system. Dr. Tolentino suggests anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous daily activity. “We don't really have a precise understanding of how often someone needs to exercise for optimal immune response,” she says. “But we know that the impact of exercise on the immune system and to your health in general is all cumulative. That means you're going to want to get in some sort of physical activity on nearly a daily basis.” 

If you’re strapped for time, split your workouts up into mini segments throughout the day: Try a 10-Minute Climb Ride on the Bike or a 10-Minute Extra Mile run on the Tread followed by one of Jess Sims’ Flash 15 strength training classes on the Peloton App. 

Your Immune System Also Needs Rest Days

Remember that more isn’t always better. It’s important to practice what Dr. Tolentino calls body intuition to make sure you’re not overdoing it and negating all the positive benefits of exercise. “You want to find a balance between getting an adequate amount of exercise but not pushing yourself too hard,” she says. “If you're skipping out on getting enough sleep to wake up early to exercise, that can be an issue that can impact your immune system. Or, if you're not adequately rehydrating or providing your body with the nutrients that it needs to keep up with your level of physical activity, that can cause other issues that can have a negative effect on the immune system.” 

Your rest days are as vital as your sweat days, so don’t forget to work some time into your weekly schedule to do some restorative yoga or meditation with the Peloton App to keep your inner defenses up and give your body time to repair itself.