Exercise and immune function. Recent developments

Sports Med. 1999 Feb;27(2):73-80. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199927020-00001.


Comparison of immune function in athletes and nonathletes reveals that the adaptive immune system is largely unaffected by athletic endeavour. The innate immune system appears to respond differentially to the chronic stress of intensive exercise, with natural killer cell activity tending to be enhanced while neutrophil function is suppressed. However, even when significant changes in the level and functional activity of immune parameters have been observed in athletes, investigators have had little success in linking these to a higher incidence of infection and illness. Many components of the immune system exhibit change after prolonged heavy exertion. During this 'open window' of altered immunity (which may last between 3 and 72 hours, depending on the parameter measured), viruses and bacteria may gain a foothold, increasing the risk of subclinical and clinical infection. However, no serious attempt has been made by investigators to demonstrate that athletes showing the most extreme post-exercise immunosuppression are those that contract an infection during the ensuing 1 to 2 weeks. This link must be established before the 'open window' theory can be wholly accepted. The influence of nutritional supplements, primarily zinc, vitamin C, glutamin and carbohydrate, on the acute immune response to prolonged exercise has been measured in endurance athletes. Vitamin C and glutamine have received much attention, but the data thus far are inconclusive. The most impressive results have been reported in the carbohydrate supplementation studies. Carbohydrate beverage ingestion has been associated with higher plasma glucose levels, an attenuated cortisol and growth hormone response, fewer perturbations in blood immune cell counts, lower granulocyte and monocyte phagocytosis and oxidative burst activity, and a diminished pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine response. It remains to be shown whether carbohydrate supplementation diminishes the frequency of infections in the recovery period after strenuous exercise. Studies on the influence of moderate exercise training on host protection and immune function have shown that near-daily brisk walking compared with inactivity reduced the number of sickness days by half over a 12- to 15-week period without change in resting immune function. Positive effects on immunosurveillance and host protection that come with moderate exercise training are probably related to a summation effect from acute positive changes that occur during each exercise bout. No convincing data exist that moderate exercise training is linked with improved T helper cell counts in patients with HIV, or enhanced immunity in elderly participants.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Bacterial Infections
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / administration & dosage
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity / immunology*
  • Immunologic Surveillance
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Neutrophils / immunology
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Physical Endurance / physiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Sports / physiology
  • T-Lymphocytes, Helper-Inducer / immunology
  • Time Factors
  • Virus Diseases
  • Walking / physiology


  • Dietary Carbohydrates