Building a healthy immune system is a vital element to fighting off illness and prolonging life as we age. While there are many factors and lifestyle choices that play a part in how strong your immune system is, exercise is considered by most in the medical field to play a large role — and cycling, in particular, maybe one of the major contributing factors that can lead to a rejuvenation of the immune system later in life.
With the seasonal flu and other viral infections like COVID-19, it’s important to do as much as possible to boost your immune system and be as healthy a person as possible. Fortunately, a recent study exploring the relationship between cycling and the immune system could explain how a routine of daily cycling can help combat illness and fight off some of the viruses currently affecting our daily lives.
Published in the journal Aging Cell, a recent study took 125 adult cyclists between the ages of 55–79 and compared their immune systems to other adults in the same age group as well as nonactive adults 20–36 years old. The study primarily focused on analyzing T-cell markers in the blood, which commonly lower as we age. T-cells are white blood cells that play a key role in adaptive immunity and building a healthy immune system overall.
The study found that in the cycling group, T-cells were much higher when compared to adults in the same age range who did not exercise, and the cyclists were producing T-cells at similar levels to those adults who were 20 years old. While this study is in no way conclusive, it does point to a significant benefit of cycling and other endurance sports to reverse some of the effects of aging as it relates to the immune system.
Since it’s thought that our immune system, or T-cell production, decreases by a few percentage points each year from the age of 20, doing what we can to mitigate this loss or even improve T-cell production through exercise has the potential to have a profound effect on overall health and quality of life in our later years.
A PHYSICIAN’S POINT OF VIEW
While additional research on improved T-cell production from exercise still needs to be conducted, avid cyclist and physician Dr. Wes Clements, of web-based SteadyMD, believes even without conclusive evidence, daily exercise, such as cycling, has already been shown to boost the immune system in other ways.
“There’s growing evidence that regular exercise may help maintain a strong immune system as we age,” Clements says. “While there’s still a lot of research needed in this field, you shouldn’t wait to begin living an active lifestyle. We already know that exercise maintains proper cardiovascular, lung, muscle and even brain health. By keeping these vital systems strong, we are able to fight off infections much easier.”
Maintaining good cardiovascular and brain health is important for any age group, but when it comes to the immune system there does seem to be more of a race against time factor that enhances the overall importance of exercise for individuals in the 55 and older category.
“The immune system does decline as we age through many mechanisms,” Clements adds. “There’s a reduction in the infection-fighting white blood cells and a shrinking of the immune organ called the thymus. This is why there’s a high-dose flu (vaccine) for older adults whose immune system may not be as responsive to a normal-dose vaccine.”
In a time where COVID-19 has hit the elderly population the hardest, without the aid of a vaccine, boosting the immune system to fight off viruses and infections seems to be one of the best courses of individual action a person can take.
OTHER FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO A HEALTHY IMMUNE SYSTEM
Unfortunately, our bodies and the immune system are complicated, and there are other factors that need to be considered when determining a course of action that makes your immune system as healthy as possible.
In terms of exercise, there is a point where excessive exercise can have a negative effect, and may not be good for the body or the immune system. Research from another study noted overly intense exercise lasting more than 90 minutes can produce hormones known to lower immunity for temporary time periods, making you more susceptible to some illnesses for up to three days.
While most of us might not be riding for these kinds of durations day in and day out that professional cyclists in races like the Tour de France often partake in, it should be noted that daily moderate exercise is key to good health. According to Clements, the fitness levels of those who participated in the study above seem to be sufficient for most.
“The participants in the study saw a very positive immune response on the molecular level riding 100km (roughly 62 miles) in under 6 1/2 hours (about 15mph average). If you’re just starting out, getting on the bike for a few miles a day is a good start. Aiming for any form of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for 30–60 minutes per day at least 4–5 days a week is likely going to contribute to your immune system and overall health.”
Aside from not overdoing it on the bike, there are other factors that need to be considered, too, including sleep and the quality of your diet.
“The most important thing you can do for your immune system is to get enough sleep,” Clement says. “After that, get regular physical activity, reduce stress and eat a diet high in fruits and veggies. Also, do be wary of any magical ‘immune-booster’ supplements. Most, if not all, pills or supplements lack any evidence that they actually work to help your immune system.”