Exercise-induced alterations in neutrophil degranulation and respiratory burst activity: possible mechanisms of action

Exerc Immunol Rev. 2002;8:49-100.


Neutrophils constitute 50-60% of all circulating leukocytes; they present the first line of microbicidal defense and are involved in inflammatory responses. To examine immunocompetence in athletes, numerous studies have investigated the effects of exercise on the number of circulating neutrophils and their response to stimulation by chemotactic stimuli and activating factors. Exercise causes a biphasic increase in the number of neutrophils in the blood, arising from increases in catecholamine and cortisol concentrations. Moderate intensity exercise may enhance neutrophil respiratory burst activity, possibly through increases in the concentrations of growth hormone and the inflammatory cytokine IL-6. In contrast, intense or long duration exercise may suppress neutrophil degranulation and the production of reactive oxidants via elevated circulating concentrations of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. There is evidence of neutrophil degranulation and activation of the respiratory burst following exercise-induced muscle damage. In principle, improved responsiveness of neutrophils to stimulation following exercise of moderate intensity could mean that individuals participating in moderate exercise may have improved resistance to infection. Conversely, competitive athletes undertaking regular intense exercise may be at greater risk of contracting illness. However, there are limited data to support this concept. To elucidate the cellular mechanisms involved in the neutrophil responses to exercise, researchers have examined changes in the expression of cell membrane receptors, the production and release of reactive oxidants and more recently, calcium signaling. The investigation of possible modifications of other signal transduction events following exercise has not been possible because of current methodological limitations. At present, variation in exercise-induced alterations in neutrophil function appears to be due to differences in exercise protocols, training status, sampling points and laboratory assay techniques.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Degranulation
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Models, Biological
  • NADPH Oxidases / metabolism
  • Neutrophils / immunology*
  • Neutrophils / physiology
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism
  • Respiratory Burst
  • Signal Transduction


  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • NADPH Oxidases