A new study has found that exercise isn’t just good for the body, it’s good for the antibodies that fight on its behalf.
The research, published in the journal Brain Behaviour and Immunity, discovered that 90 minutes of mild to moderate exercise directly following vaccination for seasonal influenza, the H1N1 strain of the flu or COVID-19 may provide an added boost to the immune system. Blood tests showed that participants who took a brisk walk or spent time on a stationary bike after rolling up their sleeves produced more antibodies over the next four weeks than those who were idle after inoculation. Similar results were observed in experiments on mice using treadmills.
“Our preliminary results are the first to demonstrate a specific amount of time can enhance the body’s antibody response to the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine and two vaccines for influenza,” said Marian Kohut, lead author of the paper and a kinesiology professor at Iowa State University.
Antibodies are protective proteins produced by the body that seek out and destroy foreign substances. Vaccines help the body’s immune system produce the antibodies needed to identify and target these substances before they have a chance to multiply and cause illness or disease.
The benefits of exercising for an hour and a half following vaccination were evident to researchers regardless of fitness level, and were observed in those considered overweight or to have obesity according to the body mass index (BMI). These benefits, which were produced by keeping participant heart rates in the range of 120 to 140 beats per minute, were not observed when the exercise period was cut in half.
While researchers were unsure exactly why this prolonged period of exercise boosted the immune system, they suspect the increase in blood and lymph flow may help circulate immune cells throughout the body and increase their chances of finding foreign substances. The team’s tests on mice suggest a protein known as interferon alpha, which is produced during physical activity, may help generate antibodies and T-cells specific to the influenza and COVID viruses.
“A lot more research is needed to answer the why and how,” Kohut said. “There are so many changes that take place when we exercise — metabolic, biochemical, neuroendocrine, circulatory. So, there’s probably a combination of factors that contribute to the antibody response we found in our study.”
Researchers will continue to monitor participants to determine if the antibody boost will still be evident at the six-month mark. They have also started another study to test the benefits of physical activity in the aftermath of receiving a booster shot. The current study may also be followed up to replicate its findings with a larger subject pool and determine the ideal duration of exercise.
“Larger scale trials should be undertaken that confirm these findings and examine the extent to which similar effects may occur after booster immunizations,” the study authors wrote. “From a public health perspective, it would be worthwhile to determine whether an exercise duration that falls between 45 and 90 min would confer some benefit as more adults may be able to complete an exercise session that is less than 90 min.”
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca