Since the mid-1980s researchers have systematically examined the effects of a session of exercise on immune function. With the health chaos that the world is experiencing, I’m reminded of this research today.
Never before have we become so aware of our immune function and for women in menopause, immune health is crucial to look after. Why? No, not only because of the risk of Corona-virus, but because as menopause is the biological gateway to our ageing, our immune system is ageing and changing too. Immune functioning decreases with normal ageing and with stress.
And feeling stressed, feeling exhausted from not sleeping, the loss of muscle tone and/or being overweight create a perfect-storm for our ageing immune system to cope with too. That’s why, at this unprecedented time of public health crisis, we need a bit of focus on our lovely immune system. Yes, you need to sleep and eat properly, and sort out your gut health too (I have a Gut Rehab module in all the MyMT programmes) but you also need the right exercise for you during menopause too. Your ageing lungs and immune system are also losing the immune-enhancing effects of oestrogen will love you!
The original research on the effects of exercise and our immune health was stimulated by anecdotal reports that athletes engaged in intense training regimes exhibited enhanced susceptibility to respiratory infections. Hence, a plethora of research about high-intensity exercise followed.
Some news was good, some not so good. And the ‘not-so-good’ news is that too much high-intensity exercise can lead to over-training syndrome – the hallmark of which is respiratory infections. So, be warned. If you are doing lots of high-intensity exercise, then balance this up with rest and some lower intensity exercise too. As I continue to say to women on my programmes – ‘If you aren’t sleeping, then you aren’t recovering from all the high-intensity exercise and over time, your immune health will suffer too.’
The Cells of the Immune System:
The body’s immune system protects us against infection … and viruses. It does this by recognising and actively attacking invading organisms. In sport and exercise science research and the early studies into the effect of exercise on the immune system, it was demonstrated that many components of the immune system exhibit change after prolonged, intense exercise. As I mentioned earlier, these changes are not always positive ones if exercise is too intense over long periods of time.
Our immune system is conveniently divided into its different functions. Our INNATE immune system recognises invasions of foreign organisms acutely. Our ADAPTIVE or ACQUIRED immune system detects a particular organism among the thousands of possible pathogens and recognises it again on subsequent exposures. In other words, the adaptive system is specific and has ‘memory’.
Our immune system cells are numerous and several of them respond positively to acute bouts of exercise – macrophages, neutrophils and yes, I love this name – Natural Killer cells (NK cells). We need a few of these at the moment don’t we? NK cells are the ones that seek out and destroy virus-infected cells non-specifically. Macrophage anti-viral function, neutrophil function and NK cell activity are all impaired after too much PROLONGED intense exercise – hence, why many athletes get sick – BUT Natural Killer cells are very responsive to short bursts of exercise (around 20 minutes) AND moderate intensity aerobic exercise as well.
Natural-killer cells are very responsive to exercise which induces their recruitment to the blood. After moderate exercise (60 minutes or less) or shorter-bouts of around 20 minutes of higher-intensity exercise, the concentration of these cells is boosted by up to 150-200% higher than pre-exercise values. However, this increase doesn’t last for long. Large numbers of these NK cells quickly dissipate (are removed) within 2-4 hours after exercise. And whilst evidence is sparse, neither fitness level nor gender, appears to influence the magnitude of exercise-induced changes in NK cells. What is recognised however, is that there are clinically important changes in our immune function that can last for up to 72 hours when exercise is moderate and it is performed regularly.
How much exercise is ENOUGH?
For more than 30 years I have been interested in this question. Simply because most people don’t have the time, motivation or energy for exercise and as New Zealand’s first Personal Trainer for global fitness giant, Les Mills, I saw first-hand that the longer the exercise sessions for beginners, the more dis-interested they became! There’s a reason drop-out stats are high in the fitness industry.
But whilst most exercise classes and personal training workouts are structured around hourly sessions, this isn’t always necessary for our health. Numerous studies show that any exercise is better than none! For mid-life women, yes an hour of exercise a day is a great goal but what researchers are finding, is that it’s the amount of calories that are expended when we exercise that delivers better health benefits. Those who burn more than 700 calories a week through daily exercise live longer and with improved health quality. Those who get their energy expenditure up to around 2000 calories weekly and add some moderate intensity, have greater health benefits. In other words, if we can work up a bit of a sweat, then this is better for us. Quality not Quantity wins out each time.
What if my Joints are Sore?
Many women find that as they transition through menopause, they experience sore muscles and joints and can’t exercise as much as they used to. As well, based on the hundreds of health screening forms I receive when women come onto my programmes, many are just plain exhausted and/or overweight with other health problems. And yes, I was the same with my muscles and joints as well. I nearly gave up on exercise myself. Out of all of our symptoms, sore joints and especially knees, seems the most challenging but this occurs because we have oestrogen receptors in our tendons and lowering oestrogen causes these to dry up. If you haven’t read my article about sore joints, then please take the time to read it HERE. It’s also why I have included my Joint Restoration Module in all of my programmes, including the Rebuild My Fitness online programme.
So, if you are working from home, or you are self-isolating and getting bored or you need some motivation to focus on ‘you’, then my 3 top exercises for you to do to boost your immune health are here for you:
- Aerobic Exercise – when you huff and puff without getting too breathless, this helps to strengthen your heart and lungs. We mustn’t forget that Coronavirus is a respiratory disease, so let’s all take a collective breath and strengthen our lungs! If you are in self-isolation you can jog on the spot, or use a skipping rope to do jump-rope or walk around the house. If you aren’t in self-isolation, then get outside and walk in the fresh air, ride your bike, hire a rowing machine or jog slowly or dance around the house. The other great thing is that aerobic exercise increases your ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol levels and decrease blood triglyceride (fats) levels. It also helps to insulin to work better too. Insulin is a hormone that also gets out of balance as we move through menopause, especially if belly-fat is increasing in our post-menopause years. But the best thing about aerobic exercise is that it is scientifically evidenced to reduce anxiety and depression – both symptoms of menopause that may be challenging women at present.
2. Press-ups! No matter where you are in the world, you need some strength in your upper body. Menopause is the time of our lives when we develop a condition called Sarcopenia and I have written about this HERE. Resistance exercise boosts a hormone called Growth Hormone and this is powerful for improving our immune health. In my online video workouts I give you options for beginner, intermediate or advanced press-ups. And what’s even better, you can add them to your walk as I show you how to get the most out of walking and I help you to create workouts that you can integrate with your walk.
3. Deep Breathing Exercises – in this time of health chaos, it’s important to remember that the Corona-virus is a respiratory disease. That means that our lungs matter so let’s give them a bit of a workout too.
I hope that you stay safe and well during this crazy time in the world. My heart also goes out to all of you wonderful nurses, doctors and other health professionals who are having a particularly tough time in the trenches. As a former Intensive Care Nurse, I feel your pain and your exhaustion and send aroha (love) to you all.
Dr Wendy Sweet, PhD/ NZ Registered Exercise Specialist/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
Bouchard, C., Blair, S. & Haskell, W. (2007). Physical activity and health. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Song, P., An, J. et al. (2020). Immune clearance of senescent cells to combat ageing and chronic disease. Cells, 9, 671 – 691.