It can be challenging to work up the motivation to exercise. It may sound cliché, but for most of us, the more persistent and consistent we are with an exercise routine, the more we look forward to exercise and how good it makes us feel. There will always be those days, however, that you just dread slogging through it. Today, in this sixth post of our April exercise series, we’re going to give you yet another great reason to push through anyway and do your daily exercises—it just might improve your aging immune system.
The Immune System and Its Functions
Our immune system’s main purpose is to keep us healthy and in good repair. Not only does it coordinate self-repair when we experience and injury, but it also attacks and destroys things like bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other microbes that try to invade our body before these things can take over and damage our body and make us sick. Our body can also damage itself, and our system helps keep this from happening. Did you know, for example, that our body always has cancerous cells that, without our immune systems, could form into cancerous tissues? Luckily, in most cases, before they get to that point our healthy immune system wipes out these rogue cells before cancer develops? So our immune system has a massive job, and keeping it healthy should be priority number one if we want the best chance at overall health as we age.
When our systems not happy, the body’s not happy. And a happy immune system uses a variety of immune cells, each type with their own functions, to maintain its happiness. A couple of examples of these cells are T cells and B cells, which are formed by stem cells in our bone marrow and phagocytes, which kill foreign invaders by actually gobbling them up. There are many, many more types of immune cells.
Immunity Declines as We Age
The immune system, like many of our body systems lose a bit of oomph as we age. In fact, this immune system decline actually starts not in those golden years, but much earlier—typically in our 20s—and gradually declines throughout life.
Understandably, as our system progressively weakens as we age, this naturally hinders its disease-fighting abilities. This is why we see more disease in those in their 60s and beyond than we might in a twenty- or thirtysomething. One study, however, suggests that exercising regularly as you age may help maintain a strong and healthy immune system and prevent that otherwise inevitable decline.
Exercise May Improve Your Immune System and Slow Its Decline
A key term to understand is immunesenescence. It’s a big word, but in regards to the study we are looking at today, it simply means the decline in immune function associated with aging. The purpose of the study was to determine if the immune system could benefit from exercise during aging. There were three groups of participants: long-distance cyclists (age 55–79) with a long history of exercise, an inactive, healthy group in the same age range, and an inactive, healthy group of young adults. Many immune function levels were analyzed, including T cells, cytokines, and others.
The results? Compared to the older participants in the healthy, inactive group, the immune functions significantly better in the active cyclists. Interestingly, in certain immune levels, such as the production of T cells, the active cyclists’ levels were comparable to the young healthy, inactive group. Meaning, in some immune functions, exercise into your 50s, 60s, and 70s could slow decline so drastically that it matches that of someone half or more of your age.
The research conclusion was that our immune system decline may result from less and less exercise as we age. This suggests that rather than becoming less active (which usually starts in our 20s for most of us), we need to keep exercising throughout life to keep our immune system at top performance.
Important Things to Know About Immunity
The immune system functions in an endless array of ways to keep us healthy and prevent diseases. Let’s take a look at a handful of fascinating studies highlighting the importance of our immune system:
- Platelets, found circulating in our blood, collaborate with our system, trapping invading bacteria and other microbes so phagocytes can quickly destroy and dispose of them.
- The immune system is so doggedly loyal to its own body that when donor stem cells, or allogeneic stem cells, are introduced into its host, studies have shown that the immune system will attack these “invading” stem cells.
- Activation of genes in microglial cells (immune system phagocytes) in the brain, one study suggests, may hold one key to helping delay dementia.