Exercise and Inflammation: What’s the Link?

Exercise and Inflammation: What’s the Link?

Exercise and inflammation -inflammation is your body’s response to injury, but it can also be a response to excessive stress, whether physical or psychological. Even a healthy habit like exercise induces a stress response that can lead to a low-grade, unhealthy state of inflammation under certain circumstances. Knowing that inflammation plays a role in a number of health problems from autoimmune diseases to cancer and heart disease, it’s important to keep it in check.

Inflammation and Your Immune System

What is inflammation anyway? To understand inflammation, you have to become familiar with your immune system. You have immune cells that protect you against foreign invaders, not only pathogens but irritants. When these cells behave in a controlled, balanced manner, they remove foreign bacteria, viruses, and environmental irritants without causing significant tissue damage. In fact, when you get an injury, like a cut, inflammation, mediated by your immune system, is part of the repair process. Another familiar example, when you’re exposed to a bacteria or virus and develop a fever, inflammation taking place behind the scenes helps your body fight the infection.

As useful as it is, inflammation can be damaging when it’s sustained or when it’s directed not against foreign invaders, but normal tissues. There’s growing evidence this type of long-grade inflammation damages tissues and the inside of blood vessels. When the inner walls of blood vessels are damaged due to chronic inflammation, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Autoimmune diseases are characterized by an uncontrolled immune system attack on normal tissues.

Exercise and Inflammation

Obviously, for health reasons, we want to keep inflammation in check. Now that you have a better idea of what inflammation is, what effect does exercise have on it? Since exercise has an impact on every organ in your body, it’s not surprising that it has an effect on your immune system and inflammation.

As you know, exercise places stress on your body. As a result of that stress, your body adapts and becomes stronger and more resilient. This is an adaptive and short-lived response to stress and one that’s not damaging to your health unless you continue to subject your body to repeated stress without giving it a chance to recover.

Based on this, you might expect exercise to trigger inflammation since it’s a form of stress – and it does increase the inflammatory response for a short period of time. But like your body’s response to a bacteria or virus, the response is limited and beneficial because it allows your body to grow and change. Over the long term, exercise in moderation helps to keep inflammation in check.

C-Reactive Protein: A Marker for Inflammation

How do we measure inflammation? Blood markers can help us identify it. One well-studied marker for inflammation is a blood protein called C-reactive protein. A number of studies show people who exercise consistently and in moderation on a regular basis have lower levels of C-reactive protein in their bloodstream. This applies to both endurance and resistance training.

The key seems to be consistency and moderation since some research shows frequent and intense exercise in people who don’t exercise regularly can trigger a spike in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein and create a low-grade, inflammatory state. People who train regularly adapt to the inflammatory effects of exercise and are better able to keep it in check. Yet, even trained athletes who don’t get enough recovery time between workouts can experience low-grade inflammation. In fact, research suggests inflammation underlies overtraining, a serious condition

Exercise and Successful Aging

When you exercise consistently and give your body a chance to recover between workouts, it becomes better at dealing with stress. So, exercise in moderation has anti-inflammatory effects. The anti-inflammatory effects of exercise are especially important as you age since aging is associated with a low-grade inflammatory state. As you age, inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein, slowly rise.

Exercise can help you control the inflammation of aging. That’s important since inflammation plays a role in many diseases of aging, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. This may partially explain how exercise reduces the risk of these health problems. Exercise is an essential part of an anti-aging lifestyle.

Keeping Inflammation in Check When You Work Out

To enjoy the anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise and avoid the uptick in inflammation that can happen if you overdo it, give yourself adequate rest and recovery time between sessions. Do high-intensity workouts, but limit them to 2 to 3 times a week rather than daily. Don’t assume that more exercise is better. Research doesn’t support this idea. A twenty-minute HIIT workout can offer as much or more benefits as an hour of moderate-intensity exercise without the repetitive stress on your joints.

Vary the type of workouts you do for variety and to reduce repetitive use of the same muscles, which could trigger inflammation.  Not only do you need adequate muscle recovery time, but the rest of your body needs recovery too – that means getting 7 or more hours of sleep a night is a must. Finally, add more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet – fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, green tea, and olive oil. Tart cherries, berries, and pomegranate rank high on the anti-inflammatory scale as do the spices turmeric, garlic, and ginger.

The Bottom Line

Inflammation is partially what allows your body to adapt to exercise and your muscles to grow and become stronger, so when it’s short-term it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s when it’s sustained that it becomes problematic. Train hard, but give your body a chance to recover too, and make sure you’re enjoying an anti-inflammatory diet.



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