Exercise and the aging immune system

Ageing Res Rev. 2012 Jul;11(3):404-20. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2012.03.003. Epub 2012 Mar 21.


Aging is associated with a decline in the normal functioning of the immune system that is described by the canopy term "immunosenescence". This contributes to poorer vaccine responses and the increased incidence of infection and malignancy seen in the elderly. Regular exercise has been associated with enhanced vaccination responses, lower numbers of exhausted/senescent T-cells, increased T-cell proliferative capacity, lower circulatory levels of inflammatory cytokines ("inflamm-aging"), increased neutrophil phagocytic activity, lowered inflammatory response to bacterial challenge, greater NK-cell cytotoxic activity and longer leukocyte telomere lengths in aging humans, all of which indicate that habitual exercise is capable of regulating the immune system and delaying the onset of immunosenescence. This contention is supported by the majority of animal studies that report improved immune responses and outcomes to viral infections and malignancies due to exercise training. However, whether or not exercise can reverse, as well as prevent, immunosenescence is a contentious issue, particularly because most longitudinal exercise training studies do not report the same positive effects of exercise on immunity that have been widely reported in studies with a cross-sectional design. In this review, we summarize some of the known effects of exercise on immunosenescence, discuss avenues for future research, and provide potential mechanisms by which exercise may help rejuvinate the aging immune system.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / immunology*
  • Animals
  • Cellular Senescence / immunology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / immunology
  • Immune System / physiology
  • Immune System / physiopathology
  • Immunity, Cellular / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology