You hear a lot about inflammation, the damage it causes, and its relationship to disease. Inflammation is an overreaction of the immune system. Rather than just attacking foreign invaders, as it should, the immune system damages normal tissue. This low-grade, less obvious form of inflammation is still harmful to your body even though it doesn’t cause redness and pain. Research shows low-grade inflammation fuels almost every chronic health problem that affects humans, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Why is inflammation so damaging? Other than the tissue damage, studies show low-grade inflammation fuels insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, and changes how blood vessels function. These factors accelerate the build-up of plaque in the walls of arteries and predisposes people to coronary artery disease. Plus, the constant tissue damage it creates increases the risk of cancer. Interestingly, insulin resistance fuels inflammation too. So, inflammation and insulin resistance support each other through a feedback loop. Because one feeds back on the other, it’s a cycle that’s hard to break.
On a brighter note, research shows that moderate quantities of aerobic exercise help lower inflammation. Although vigorous workouts may, at first, cause an increase in inflammation, as measured by inflammatory markers, regular exercise seems to reduce inflammation as the body adapts to the stress of exercise. Human bodies have an amazing ability to adapt to the stress placed on it. Plus, aerobic exercise ramps up the body’s internal defense system against oxidative damage and that’s a positive for health.
You might wonder how exercise reigns in inflammation. Scientists now know that skeletal muscle is much like an endocrine organ. When you contract your muscles, they release hormone-like substances called myokines that counter inflammation. Some of these myokines include IL-6, IL-8, IL-15, also known as interleukins. Most inflammation is mediated by inflammatory cytokines, chemical messengers that tell the immune system how to behave. Studies show that physically active people have lower levels of inflammatory cytokines that fuel inflammation, possibly due to the action of myokines.
Resistance Training versus Aerobic Exercise
You might wonder whether resistance training protects against inflammation in the same way aerobic exercise does. Cytokines that fuel inflammation are affected by the vigorousness of a workout, workout duration, the type of exercise, how physically fit you are, and how much recovery there is between workouts.
However, there is some evidence that resistance training reduces inflammation. One study, published in the journal Menopause, showed that a resistance training program that used progressive overload reduced markers of inflammation in tissues and in blood. The participants were post-menopausal women and they also enjoyed improvements in physical performance and a boost in their energy level.
Another 12-month study of overweight women found that high-intensity weight training reduced blood levels of c-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation. Intensity seems to be a factor since studies where participants trained with heavier weights were more likely to show a drop in inflammatory markers. In fact, a study in healthy young men found that those who lifted heavy had greater reductions in inflammatory markers than those who trained with lighter weights.
Don’t Overdo It
Exercise in moderation helps curb inflammation by suppressing the release of inflammatory cytokines, but don’t overdo it! Excessive exercise or workouts without adequate recovery can bring about physiological changes that increase cytokine release and inflammation. According to the cytokine hypothesis, many of the signs and symptoms of overtraining are caused by inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines can act on the brain and cause many of the mood changes people who exercise too hard without recovery experience. They can affect glucose uptake by muscles, leading to fatigue. Therefore, the key to curbing inflammation is to allow your body adequate rest and recovery between workouts. Lift heavy but give your body at least 48 hours to recover between training sessions.
Other Ways to Lower Inflammation
Science also suggests that diet plays a role in inflammation. Certain foods, like ultra-processed fare, sugar, and trans-fat, fuels inflammation while phytonutrients in fruits, vegetables, and some spices may keep it in check. Research links foods such as fatty fish, seeds, nuts, green, leafy vegetables, olive oil, and berries with reduced inflammation. Studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet that emphasizes these foods also helps reduce markers of inflammation. Switch sugary foods and ultra-processed carbs for a nutrient-dense snack such as nuts. One study showed that munching on nuts reduces markers of inflammation.
Healthy sleep patterns, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, and managing stress are also vital for lowering inflammation and improving health. Plus, losing weight reduces inflammation since fat cells produce inflammatory cytokines. Both aerobic exercise and resistance training help with weight control.
The Bottom Line
The best way to keep inflammation in check is to do moderate amounts of exercise that raise your heart rate, without overtraining, as well as strength training. Using a heavier resistance may offer more benefits than lifting lighter weights. Give your body enough time to recover between intense workouts too. Combine it with a healthy diet, optimal sleep, and stress management to optimize immune function and reduce inflammation. It’s the totality of your lifestyle that counts for reducing inflammation and staying your healthiest. Make the right choices!
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