How does exercise affect your immune system and your ability to fight off coronavirus?

Keeping active is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system and isolation should not stop people working out, say scientists from the University of Bath

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It’s been long-believed that while regular, moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial for immunity, arduous exercise can suppress immune function, leading to an ‘open-window’ of heightened infection risk in the hours and days following exercise. In 2018, Dr Campbell and Dr Turner, of Bath University, challenged this ‘open window’ hypothesis. They reported that the theory was not well supported by scientific evidence, summarising that there’s limited reliable evidence that exercise suppresses immunity, concluding instead that exercise is actually beneficial for immune function.

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They say that, in the short term, exercise can help the immune system find and deal with pathogens. While in the long term, regular exercise slows down changes that happen to the immune system through ageing, therefore reducing the risk of infections.

In a new article, published this month, leading experts, including Dr Turner and Dr Campbell, debated whether the immune system can change in a negative or positive way after exercise and whether or not athletes get more infections than the general population. Their findings concluded that infections are more likely to be linked to inadequate diet, psychological stress, insufficient sleep, travel and, importantly, pathogen exposure at social-gathering events like marathons – rather than the act of exercising itself.

Author Dr James Turner says: “Our work has concluded that there’s very limited evidence for exercise directly increasing the risk of becoming infected with viruses. In the context of coronavirus and the conditions we find ourselves in today, the most important consideration is reducing your exposure from other people who may be carrying the virus. But people should not overlook the importance of staying fit, active and healthy during this period. Provided it’s carried out in isolation – away from others – then regular, daily exercise will help better maintain the way the immune system works, not suppress it.”

Co-author, Dr John Campbell said: “People should not fear that their immune system will be suppressed by exercise placing them at increased risk of coronavirus. Provided exercise is carried out according to latest government guidance on social distancing, regular exercise will have a tremendously positive effect on our health and wellbeing, both today and for the future.”

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