You hear a lot these days about anti-inflammatory diets and about fighting inflammation by eating certain foods. Your body needs the capacity to mount an inflammatory response short-term. For example, when you cut your finger or are exposed to a virus, you count on your immune system to fight those harmful, foreign invaders. In response, your immune system launches an invasion and then retreats once the danger as passed. During the active phase of inflammation, you might notice redness, swelling, and pain in an inflamed area but these signs usually diminish within a few days as healing takes place.
In contrast, there’s chronic, low-grade inflammation. This type of inflammation isn’t as “flashy” as acute inflammation and often escapes detection. In fact, you can have chronic, low-grade, smoldering inflammation anywhere in your body without knowing it. Experts now believe that low-grade inflammation, due to inappropriate immune system activation, is a factor in a number of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, and cancer. Almost any disease you can name has an inflammatory component, including mental health problems, like depression.
Inflammation and Aging
Inflammation goes along with the aging process itself. With age, levels of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines gradually rise. Some experts believe the increase in inflammatory cytokines goes is linked with loss of muscle mass as we age. Some of these key cytokines are interleukin 6, also known as IL-6, C-reactive protein (CRP), and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). In fact, health care professionals sometimes measure C-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers in various clinical situations to look for inflammatory conditions.
What causes low-grade inflammation? Lifestyle, particularly diet, is a factor. For example, there’s evidence that consuming a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats fuels inflammation. You can optimize this ratio by avoiding processed vegetable oils and processed foods (high in omega-6) and consuming more fatty fish and plant-based sources of omega-3s, like walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
Is Exercise Anti-Inflammatory?
What role does exercise play in countering low-grade inflammation? According to a new study carried out at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, even a 20-minute exercise session has powerful anti-inflammatory benefits.
In the study, 47 participants walked on a treadmill at a moderate intensity for only 20 minutes. Before the treadmill workout, researchers measured the activity of activated immune cells and again after their treadmill journey. They were surprised to find a 5% drop in inflammatory immune cell activity after the 20-minute exercise session. These findings suggest that even a short period of moderate-intensity exercise may subdue inflammatory activity.
In many ways, this isn’t surprising. A number of studies show that exercise has anti-inflammatory benefits. What’s intriguing about this study is the exercise session was short and not very intense. That’s good news for older people who, for medical and orthopedic reasons, have a hard time doing high-intensity exercise. Based on this study, a relatively brisk walk for 20 minutes might be enough to offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Some studies show an even greater drop in inflammation in response to exercise. One study, participants who carried out 2.5 hours of exercise weekly lowered their inflammatory markers by 12%.
How Does Exercise Reduce Inflammation?
One of the ways exercise may reign in inflammation is by reducing body fat. Fat cells, especially visceral fat, produce inflammatory cytokines that can incite inflammation. Visceral fat is deep belly fat that surrounds organs, in contrast to the jiggly stuff you can pinch. One manifestation of visceral fat is an expanding waistline and a stubborn “muffin top.” Unfortunately, visceral belly fat is also the most dangerous kind, partially because it produces inflammatory cytokines and is linked with insulin resistance. So, exercise may suppress inflammation partially by aiding in fat loss.
However, exercise must reduce inflammation in another way since, in this study, the participants enjoyed a reduction in inflammatory immune activity after only 20 minutes of exercise and they didn’t have to wait weeks to see the results. So, exercise seems to offer immediate anti-inflammatory benefits along with longer-term ones. What’s not clear is HOW exercise lowers anti-inflammatory markers after a single exercise session.
What about Resistance Training?
You might wonder whether resistance training has an impact on inflammation or do you only get those benefits from aerobic workouts. Some studies DO show a reduction in inflammatory markers in response to resistance training. In these studies, the changes took place after several months of consistent resistance training. Still, adding resistance training to the mix may pay off more than aerobic exercise alone. A 2011 study showed endurance training in combination with resistance training reduced C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker) more than endurance training as a standalone workout.
What you should also know is exercise, especially vigorous exercise, can bump up inflammatory markers short-term, based on some studies. However, regular physical activity seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect. One caveat: Overtraining and not giving your body enough time to recover between workouts can have the opposite effect – it can fuel inflammation. For example, running a marathon can lead to an acute rise in inflammatory markers due to the stress of excessive training. That’s why it’s important to plan your workouts so that you’re giving your body enough recovery time. It’s also important to get adequate sleep, at least seven hours a night.
As mentioned your diet has an impact on inflammation as well. Stick to whole, unprocessed foods and avoid added sugar. Add more anti-inflammatory spices to your meals, including ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.
The Bottom Line
Both aerobic exercise and resistance training may help your body reduce inflammation, although there’s more evidence that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise is anti-inflammatory than resistance training. With so much concern about inflammation and its role in disease and aging, exercise is a natural approach to keeping your body in balance – and the side effects? They’re all positive.
Eurekalert.org. “Exercise; It Does a Body Good: 20 Minutes Can Act as an Anti-Inflammatory”
Aging Dis. 2012 Feb; 3(1): 130–140. Published online 2011 Oct 29.
Prevention. “The Habit That Could Save Your Life”
Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011 Oct;36(5):660-70. doi: 10.1139/h11-077. Epub 2011 Oct 4.
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