Health and Medicine

20 Minutes of Exercise Can Act as an Anti-Inflammatory


Regular physical activity has many health benefits, including strengthening the bones, muscles and heart, weight control, and reducing the risk of certain diseases.

A research team at the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine recently found that a single session of moderate exercise could also act as an anti-inflammatory. The findings are encouraging and could have implications for chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia and arthritis. It could also have a positive effect on more pervasive conditions, including obesity.

The study was recently published in the online magazine Brain, Behavior and Immunity, and found that a single 20-minute session of moderate exercise can stimulate the immune system, causing it to produce an anti-inflammatory cellular response.

Suzi Hong, PhD, in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health and the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and senior author, notes that exercise is always beneficial for the body on many levels, including at the immune cell level. She adds that although the anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise have been known to researchers for years, determining how that process works is the key to safely maximizing the benefits.

The sympathetic nervous system is a pathway that helps to raise blood pressure and accelerate heart rate, among other things. During exercise, both the sympathetic nervous system and the brain are activated to enable the body to perform the work. During this process, hormones such as norepinephrine and epinephrine are released into the blood stream. These hormones trigger the adrenergic receptors found in immune cells.

During exercise, this activation process produces immunological responses including the production of many cytokines, or proteins. One of these is TNF, which is a key regulator of systemic and local inflammation and helps boost immune responses.

Hong explained that the results of the study show that one session of approximately 20 minutes of modest treadmill exercise caused a five percent increase in the number of stimulated immune cells producing TNF. New therapies for individuals with chronic inflammatory conditions may be developed by building on this understanding of what sets regulatory mechanisms of inflammatory proteins in motion. With nearly 25 million Americans suffering from autoimmune diseases, this could be a huge step toward relieving their suffering.

During the study, 47 participants walked on a treadmill at an intensity that was adjusted to cater for their fitness level. Blood was collected before the 20-minute exercise challenge and again immediately after.

Hong noted that a workout session doesn’t have to be intense to have anti-inflammatory effects. It is sufficient to do between twenty and thirty minutes of moderate exercise, including fast walking. Thinking that a workout needs to be for a long duration at a peak exertion level can be intimidating for those who suffer from chronic inflammatory diseases and could benefit greatly from physical activity.

Inflammation is an important part of the body’s immune response. Through the immune response, the body tries to defend itself against foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria; heal itself after an injury; and repair tissue that has been damaged. Chronic inflammation can however lead to serious health issues associated with celiac disease, diabetes, obesity and other conditions.

Hong concludes that patients with chronic inflammatory diseases should always consult with their doctor to determine an appropriate treatment plan. Knowing that exercise can act as an anti-inflammatory is a thrilling step toward new possibilities.