Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions

Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2015:135:355-80. doi: 10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.08.001. Epub 2015 Sep 5.


Exercise has a profound effect on the normal functioning of the immune system. It is generally accepted that prolonged periods of intensive exercise training can depress immunity, while regular moderate intensity exercise is beneficial. Single bouts of exercise evoke a striking leukocytosis and a redistribution of effector cells between the blood compartment and the lymphoid and peripheral tissues, a response that is mediated by increased hemodynamics and the release of catecholamines and glucocorticoids following the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Single bouts of prolonged exercise may impair T-cell, NK-cell, and neutrophil function, alter the Type I and Type II cytokine balance, and blunt immune responses to primary and recall antigens in vivo. Elite athletes frequently report symptoms associated with upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) during periods of heavy training and competition that may be due to alterations in mucosal immunity, particularly reductions in secretory immunoglobulin A. In contrast, single bouts of moderate intensity exercise are "immuno-enhancing" and have been used to effectively increase vaccine responses in "at-risk" patients. Improvements in immunity due to regular exercise of moderate intensity may be due to reductions in inflammation, maintenance of thymic mass, alterations in the composition of "older" and "younger" immune cells, enhanced immunosurveillance, and/or the amelioration of psychological stress. Indeed, exercise is a powerful behavioral intervention that has the potential to improve immune and health outcomes in the elderly, the obese, and patients living with cancer and chronic viral infections such as HIV.

Keywords: Acute exercise; Athletes; Chronic exercise; Cytokines; Immunosenescence; Infection history; Leukocyte redistribution; Mucosal immunity; Nutritional status; Stress response; Vaccine response; Viral reactivation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Count
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity*
  • Leukocytes / cytology
  • Models, Biological