It is no secret that exercise lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. In fact, research shows that a single exercise session is beneficial for your heart. Who doesn’t love immediate gratification? In fact, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that one session of cardiovascular exercise boosted heat shock proteins. That sounds like a bad thing, but these proteins protect against a sudden heart attack or irregular heart rhythm. You release more of these proteins when you do high-intensity exercise, so more vigorous workouts have an edge. The stress of exercise boosts your body’s protective defenses against cardiovascular events.
However, it isn’t just cardiovascular disease that exercise lowers the risk of. Studies show that regular physical activity slashes the risk of other health problems, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer. But why does exercise offer these protective benefits? Some researchers believe that it’s the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise that explain how exercise reduces the risk of a number of health problems.
The Role of Inflammation in Aging and Chronic Disease
Inflammation is a driving force behind many chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and cancer, but this isn’t the obvious inflammation we’re most familiar with. When you cut or burn your skin, you expect to see redness and feel pain. Low grade inflammation linked with chronic disease is a less obvious, smoldering type of inflammation that slowly damages cells and tissues. Studies also link inflammation with metabolic problems, such as insulin resistance. If we can control inflammation, we can lower the risk of a number of health issues and control pre-existing ones.
Can exercise help in this respect? Working out consistently helps reign in low-grade inflammation and reduce its harmful effects on the body. According to research published in Harvard Magazine, the way exercise reduces the risk of heart disease is partially due to the way it normalizes the immune system and suppresses inflammation. As they point out, about a third of the benefits we get from our workouts stems from a reduction in inflammation.
People often point to the impact exercise has on blood lipids, blood sugar, and blood pressure as the reason it reduces cardiovascular risk but it’s also because exercise suppresses inflammation inside the walls of arteries. When the walls are damaged by ongoing, low-grade inflammation stemming from a hectic lifestyle, smoking, and a diet of junk food, it creates ideal conditions for a blood clot to form and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
You can develop low-grade inflammation even if you don’t smoke, abuse alcohol, or eat junk food. That’s because inflammation increases as we age. Studies show the elderly have two to four-fold higher levels of inflammatory markers relative to young people. Some of this increase is because of the chronic diseases that the elderly are at higher risk of, including obesity, but there is an increase in low-grade inflammation that comes with aging too.
How Does Exercise Fight Inflammation?
A review of nine studies of older ages looked at levels of physical activity and their correlation with inflammatory markers. According to this study, even modest amounts of exercise is linked with a reduction in inflammatory markers. It’s tricky though. Some research finds that excessive exercise or stressing your body with large amounts exercise it isn’t accustomed to can boost inflammation. Therefore, moderation and enough recovery between sessions is important.
How does exercise lower the body’s inflammatory burden? When you contract your muscles during exercise, they release a chemical called IL-6 that activates TNF, a major regulator of inflammation. That boosts the levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines in the body. Exercise also activates the sympathetic or “fight or flight” portion of the nervous system and this turns on the body’s anti-inflammatory response. In addition, exercise reduces body fat. That’s important because fat cells release chemicals that fuel inflammation. Visceral fat cells, those stored around the waist and tummy, are the most aggressive releaser of inflammatory chemicals. Therefore, exercise reduces inflammation in a number of ways.
How much exercise does it take to get these benefits? One study found that only 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise is enough to release anti-inflammatory chemicals that calm inflammation. So, one thing you can do to reduce inflammation is to do at least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day. When you reduce inflammation, you lower your risk of many of the chronic health problems that plaque humans such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Plus, reduction of inflammation is one mechanism by which exercise lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. When you exercise, you’re getting lots of health benefits!
Other Ways to Reduce Inflammation
Keep exercising but do other things to tame age-related inflammation too. Keep your gut microbiome in balance by eating a prebiotic and probiotic-rich diet. This helps because 70% of your immune system lies in your gut and they are a key factor in how your immune cells function. Skip the sugar and refined carbs and eat whole foods free of unnecessary additives. Research suggests that food additives, especially emulsifiers, can disrupt the gut microbiome. Get enough sleep and manage stress, as stress can disrupt immune system function and lead to inflammation.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why exercise is such a healthy habit! It helps keep inflammation in check as we age, and we know that inflammation is a driving force behind many chronic health problems. Combine exercise with a healthy diet and other healthy lifestyle habits and you can increase your lifespan and your healthspan, the number of years you spend without serious illnesses or disability.
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- Aging Dis. 2012 Feb; 3(1): 130–140. Published online 2011 Oct 29.
- UC San Diego Health. “Exercise … it Does a Body Good: 20 Minutes Can Act as Anti-Inflammatory”
- Gut 2017;66:1414-1427.