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Does Exercise Suppress the Immune System?

Researchers challenge the viewpoint that strenuous exercise negatively influences the immune system.

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Man feeling sick and maybe showing early symptoms of infection

Have you heard the claims that strenuous exercise programs can suppress the immune system and increase infection risk, particularly when conducted over long periods? A lot of people have. An international group of researchers analyzed that assessment in a debate article in Exercise Immunology Review (2020; 26, 8–22). James Turner, PhD, and John Campbell, PhD, exercise physiologists from the University of Bath in England, are leading opponents of the hypothesis and maintain that exercise is beneficial for immune function.

A research review does show that those who exercise at levels far above health recommendations—for example, high-performance athletes and elite military groups—experience a greater risk of infection along with alterations to immune biomarkers. However, Campbell and Turner note that these changes are strongly influenced by nonexercise factors like genetics, nutritional status, stress, sleep disruption and more. Researchers both for and against the hypothesis that arduous exercise can suppress the immune system agree that infection susceptibility is multifactorial.

Turner and Campbell urge people not to fear that exercise will suppress the immune system, placing them at increased risk of coronavirus. Instead, the researchers encourage people to stay fit and physically active while following government guidelines for health and safety.

See also: Resistance Training Tips to Minimize Infection Risks

What have you learned from your experience as a fitness professional that you may not necessarily find in a research review? Research is important, yes, but sometimes the one-on-one interactions and real-world experience lead to other kinds of interesting discoveries. We want to hear from you! Be part of a wider network of fitness professionals who are making a difference. Contact executive editor Joy Keller to share your insight ([email protected]). We enjoy hearing (and learning from) you!

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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