Exercising in environmental extremes : a greater threat to immune function?

Sports Med. 2006;36(11):941-76. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200636110-00003.


Athletes, military personnel, fire fighters, mountaineers and astronauts may be required to perform in environmental extremes (e.g. heat, cold, high altitude and microgravity). Exercising in hot versus thermoneutral conditions (where core temperature is > or = 1 degrees C higher in hot conditions) augments circulating stress hormones, catecholamines and cytokines with associated increases in circulating leukocytes. Studies that have clamped the rise in core temperature during exercise (by exercising in cool water) demonstrate a large contribution of the rise in core temperature in the leukocytosis and cytokinaemia of exercise. However, with the exception of lowered stimulated lymphocyte responses after exercise in the heat, and in exertional heat illness patients (core temperature > 40 degrees C), recent laboratory studies show a limited effect of exercise in the heat on neutrophil function, monocyte function, natural killer cell activity and mucosal immunity. Therefore, most of the available evidence does not support the contention that exercising in the heat poses a greater threat to immune function (vs thermoneutral conditions). From a critical standpoint, due to ethical committee restrictions, most laboratory studies have evoked modest core temperature responses (< 39 degrees C). Given that core temperature during exercise in the field often exceeds levels associated with fever and hyperthermia (approximately 39.5 degrees C) field studies may provide an opportunity to determine the effects of severe heat stress on immunity. Field studies may also provide insight into the possible involvement of immune modulation in the aetiology of exertional heat stroke (core temperature > 40.6 degrees C) and identify the effects of acclimatisation on neuroendocrine and immune responses to exercise-heat stress. Laboratory studies can provide useful information by, for example, applying the thermal clamp model to examine the involvement of the rise in core temperature in the functional immune modifications associated with prolonged exercise. Studies investigating the effects of cold, high altitude and microgravity on immunity and infection incidence are often hindered by extraneous stressors (e.g. isolation). Nevertheless, the available evidence does not support the popular belief that short- or long-term cold exposure, with or without exercise, suppresses immunity and increases infection incidence. In fact, controlled laboratory studies indicate immuno-stimulatory effects of cold exposure. Although some evidence shows that ascent to high altitude increases infection incidence, clear conclusions are difficult to make because of some overlap with the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Studies have reported suppressed cell-mediated immunity in mountaineers at high altitude and in astronauts after re-entering the normal gravity environment; however, the impact of this finding on resistance to infection remains unclear.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Altitude
  • Cold Temperature
  • Environment*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Heat Stress Disorders
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • United Kingdom