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A good night’s sleep and learning how to manage stress are essential for healing and maintaining excellent health. But did you know that moving your body is also a significant part of that “health equation?”

Sleep and stress reduction go hand in hand for a healthy immune system and overall well-being. We now know another scientifically proven factor to improve sleep and stress management and help boost your immune function: Movement.

Current societies face several health epidemics: obesity, diabetes, stress, depression, chronic pain, fatigue, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and the list goes on and on. Research and practical experience show that regular movement can benefit all these conditions.

It seems so simple, right? And it is. So, what is the problem?

We don’t move enough!

Walking, running, climbing, crawling, lifting, carrying, throwing, and catching, are the movements nature designed the human body to perform. Throughout the day, every single day. Ancient humans used to walk up to 20 miles daily, just hunting and gathering food. And it wasn’t just in one stretch, but all day long, accumulating movement and energy expenditure.

Ok, but that was in the past. Now we have so many conveniences – cars, food available all the time, technology, etc., and everything has been made easier. Do we really need to move that much? Why is movement so important?

Most published studies show that exercising or moving regularly leads to an increased competence of the immune system and reduced risk of infection, compared with a sedentary lifestyle.

The most predominant lifestyle-related health conditions, like cardiovascular and metabolic disease, are characterized by a persistent systemic inflammatory state, commonly called chronic inflammation. By lowering the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, regular movement dramatically reduces inflammation, improving most chronic illnesses. According to a 2016 study, the effects of physical activity are mediated by a modification of metabolic signals and innate immune regulation, the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines from muscle, the release of stress hormones, and a process known as the browning of adipose tissue1.

An article published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 1997 by Niemen DC reported significant research on exercise and immunology2. These findings were considered of practical importance in terms of public health and athletic endeavor and result from an overview of more than 600 papers published over the last 95 years.

Some of the significant points2:

  • “In response to acute exercise, a rapid interchange of immune cells between peripheral lymphoid tissues and the circulation occurs… Of all immune cells, natural killer (NK) cells, neutrophils, and macrophages appear to be most responsive to the effects of acute exercise, both in terms of numbers and function. In general, acute exercise bouts of moderate duration (< 60 min) and intensity (< 60% VO2max) are associated with fewer perturbations and less stress to the immune system than are prolonged, high-intensity sessions.”
  • “Data suggest that the incidence and mortality rates for certain types of cancer are lower among active subjects.”
  • “As individuals age, they experience a decline in most cell-mediated and humoral immune responses. Two human studies suggest that immune function is superior in highly conditioned versus sedentary elderly subjects.”

In more recent and fascinating research on the gut microbiome, scientists reveal that physical activity might be an important modulator of intestinal microbial communities. Compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota have been observed but might depend on factors like BMI and training intensity 3,4,5. Favorable changes are associated with increased biodiversity and representation of taxa with beneficial metabolic functions. It is still hard to phantom how important these discoveries might be considering the fundamental role microbiome plays in immune function. The complex relationships between exercise, microbiome, immune system, and skeletal muscle function are being slowly unveiled as more research is conducted on the importance of microbial communities6.

The effects of regular movement can be even more outstanding when we look at cancer treatment. A meta-analysis published in 2012, entitled Physical activity for cancer survivors, looked at randomized controlled trials after treatment for breast cancer and revealed that “physical activity has positive effects on physiology, body composition, physical functions, psychological outcomes, and quality of life.” Considering other cancers, physical activity was also associated with reduced BMI and body weight, increased peak oxygen consumption and power output, and improved quality of life7.

The positive influence of physical activity in increased immunological anti-cancer activity is probably mediated via an increase in the number and cytotoxicity of monocytes, NK cells, and cytokines8.

Regular movement or physical activity doesn’t mean exclusively one hour in the gym every day, and it especially doesn’t mean beer lifting or couch sitting. It means to get up and move.

Why?

Because we are now faced with another huge problem.

A new epidemic: sitting. We spend too much time sitting!

Increased epidemiological evidence shows that excessive sitting is a considerable health risk even if recommendations for physical activity are fulfilled.  Sitting constitutes a health risk by itself. First, people who sit for prolonged periods tend to have low physical activity levels, and second, more physical activity does not counterbalance all mechanisms underlying the adverse effects of sitting.

Sitting means muscular passivity. Muscular inactivity increases insulin resistance and influences the transport and oxidation of fatty acids in muscular tissue. Acute exercise is not sufficient to restore normal function in the body. Accordingly, adequate everyday physical activity seems to be essential for maintaining the signaling pathways affecting insulin sensitivity9.

A 2017 study showed that breaking sitting with standing and light-intensity walking effectively improved 24h glucose levels and improved insulin sensitivity in individuals with type 2 diabetes to a greater extent than structured exercise10. This means that interrupting prolonged sitting by standing and moving throughout the day may improve glycemic regulation even more than a structured type of exercise, like a workout in the gym.

Findings like these can be significant for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes patients, especially in managing their condition10,11. However, we do not want to downplay the importance of structured exercise regimens, given that both acute and chronic exercise can improve 24h glucose profiles in adults with type 2 diabetes12.

In June 2020, the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology published an article highlighting the importance of reducing sedentary behavior, which is considered a potential cancer mortality risk factor 13. The authors revealed that prolonged inactivity increases the risk of dying of cancer by 82%! A simple lifestyle change like replacing 30 minutes of sedentary time with physical activity lowered the participants’ risk for cancer mortality by 31%. Light-physical activities like walking yielded an additional 8% decreased risk of cancer death. In their conclusions, the authors support the message we share at An Oasis of Healing to promote longevity and prevent cancer “sit less and move more” and also reported that consistency is the factor that seems to yield more robust results.

We want to highlight that any type of exercise or movement is suitable; the key is moving regularly and consistently. We also must keep in mind that several other factors can play a significant role when evaluating results, like age, physical condition, stress levels, and timing of exercise. This is why we consider that just moving, anytime, anywhere, in any motion and fashion, is the point to retain from both scientific research and anecdotal evidence.

Lack of movement is a step toward chronic disease.

A study entitled “Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases” examined physical activity/exercise as primary prevention against 35 chronic conditions. Its findings are unequivocal: “evidence exists that physical inactivity is one important cause of most chronic diseases. In addition, physical activity primarily prevents, or delays, chronic diseases, implying that chronic disease need not be an inevitable outcome during life14.” Researchers also refer to how the human body can rapidly maladapt to insufficient physical activity, which, when prolonged, results in loss of total years and quality years of life14.

In summary, the effects of movement on the immune system, although dependent on the mode and intensity of the physical activity, can be considered, without a doubt, an important lifestyle factor for the prevention and therapy of major chronic diseases.

If you still have doubts, the benefits of regular movement extend far beyond your immune system modulation and include, but are not limited to:

  • Maintaining or improving physical abilities.
  • Improving balance and lower risk of falls and broken bones.
  • Keeping muscles from wasting due to inactivity.
  • Lowering risk of heart disease.
  • Less risk of osteoporosis.
  • Better blood flow to legs and lower risk of blood clots.
  • Less dependence on others to do everyday activities of daily living.
  • Improved self-esteem.
  • Lower risk of anxiety and depression.
  • Less nausea.
  • Better ability to keep social contacts.
  • Fewer symptoms of fatigue.
  • Better weight control.
  • Improved quality of life.

Call it movement, exercise, gymnastics, aerobics, working out, going to the gym, foraging, playing with the kids, walking the dog, hide and seek, hunter-gathering… it all comes down to one word: move.

Move your body according to nature’s design.

Get up and do it.

  1. Krüger K, Mooren FC, Pilat C. The Immunomodulatory Effects of Physical Activity. Curr Pharm Des. 2016;22(24):3730-3748. doi:10.2174/1381612822666160322145107
  2. Nieman DC. Exercise immunology: practical applications. Int J Sports Med. 1997;18 Suppl 1:S91-S100. doi:10.1055/s-2007-972705
  3. Barton W, Penney NC, Cronin O, et al. The microbiome of professional athletes differs from that of more sedentary subjects in composition and particularly at the functional metabolic level. Gut. 2018;67(4):625-633. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313627
  4. Allen JM, Mailing LJ, Niemiro GM, et al. Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018;50(4):747-757. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001495
  5. Petersen LM, Bautista EJ, Nguyen H, et al. Community characteristics of the gut microbiomes of competitive cyclists. Microbiome. 2017;5(1):98. Published 2017 Aug 10. doi:10.1186/s40168-017-0320-4
  6. Ticinesi A, Lauretani F, Tana C, Nouvenne A, Ridolo E, Meschi T. Exercise and immune system as modulators of intestinal microbiome: implications for the gut-muscle axis hypothesis. Exerc Immunol Rev. 2019;25:84-95.
  7. Fong DY, Ho JW, Hui BP, et al. Physical activity for cancer survivors: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 2012;344:e70. Published 2012 Jan 30. doi:10.1136/bmj.e70
  8. Schmidt T, van Mackelenbergh M, Wesch D, Mundhenke C. Physical activity influences the immune system of breast cancer patients. J Cancer Res Ther. 2017;13(3):392-398. doi:10.4103/0973-1482.150356
  9. Pesola AJ, Pekkonen M, Finni T. Why is excessive sitting a health risk?. Duodecim. 2016;132(21):1964-1971.
  10. Duvivier BM, Schaper NC, Hesselink MK, et al. Breaking sitting with light activities vs structured exercise: a randomised crossover study demonstrating benefits for glycaemic control and insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetes. Diabetologia. 2017;60(3):490-498. doi:10.1007/s00125-016-4161-7
  11. Dempsey PC, Blankenship JM, Larsen RN, et al. Interrupting prolonged sitting in type 2 diabetes: nocturnal persistence of improved glycaemic control. Diabetologia. 2017;60(3):499-507. doi:10.1007/s00125-016-4169-z
  12. Munan M, Oliveira CLP, Marcotte-Chénard A, et al. Acute and Chronic Effects of Exercise on Continuous Glucose Monitoring Outcomes in Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2020;11:495. Published 2020 Aug 4. doi:10.3389/fendo.2020.00495
  13. Gilchrist SC, Howard VJ, Akinyemiju T, et al. Association of Sedentary Behavior With Cancer Mortality in Middle-aged and Older US Adults. JAMA Oncol. 2020;6(8):1210–1217. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2020.2045
  14. Booth FW, Roberts CK, Laye MJ. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Compr Physiol. 2012;2(2):1143-1211. doi:10.1002/cphy.c110025