The positive effects of routine exercise on aging has been extensively documented. Less studied, and understood, is the long term effect exercise has on our immune system. Why is this important? Our immune system becomes compromised/severely altered as we age, a process known as immunosenescence. and these alterations are closely related to increased mortality and morbidity rates.
Aging of the immune system, particularly the dysregulation of T-cell function, appears to be partly responsible for many health problems associated with the elderly population. These individuals are more susceptible to different infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and cancer and respond less well to vaccination when compared with a young adult population.
Exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle has already been shown to provide long-term benefits with regard to cardiovascular, cognitive, psychosocial and other aspects of the elderly. If positive effects are also observed for immunosenescence, exercise could be a highly cost-effective measure to improve human quality of life compared with the other strategies currently being pursued.
Although the impact of exercise on the immune system is an area of extensive research, most studies have focused on the responses to acute exercise. Such studies have shown that the immune response to acute exercise is transient and variable, being influenced by a wide range of factors, such as the intensity, duration and mode of exercise. Few studies have addressed the immune response to exercise training in the long term, particularly in elderly people.
In studies performed on a younger population, exercise has been shown to potentially induce better adaptive immune responses, and moderate physical activity appears to have a positive effect on the innate immune system.
Another study showed that aerobic fitness is associated with a lower accumulation of senescent T cells, highlighting the beneficial effects of an active lifestyle on the aging of the immune system.
Studies that evaluated the effect of physical activity on telomere length in peripheral blood mononuclear cells of the elderly indicate that the telomere length is preserved in elderly individuals with a history of physical activity, either moderate or vigorous, and that this effect correlated with an improvement in VO2 max.
Data from two different studies by Kohut et al. suggest that moderate-to-vigorous exercise training in older adults helps improve the effectiveness of an influenza immunization by increasing the antibody response. More recently, Woods et al. demonstrated increased seroprotection against influenza virus in elderly persons on a 10-month moderate aerobic activity program in comparison with elderly individuals who only participated in flexibility exercises.
While there is not enough research yet to conclusively prove that exercise has long term benefits for the immune system, it would appear likely that regular exercise benefits the immune system of all ages.
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