Exercise is good for your health. OK, we know that! Exercise increases blood flow and thus oxygenation of all tissues, not just the muscles. It speeds up the “garbage removal” of metabolic waste products. It strengthens the cardiovascular system, and of course, our muscles. But there is a special, long term benefit which can reduce our chances of getting sick…
When we use muscles we may expect them to be sore and inflamed, but that goes away after the muscle rebuilds. Temporary inflammation in response to exercise is not a problem, but it’s a healing process. When the inflammation has done its job, it goes away. It is also localized, rather than spread throughout the body.
Chronic inflammation is different — the body keeps the “alarm” on because it senses threats which aren’t going away. Inflammation is the scourge of modern society: we are stressed out, eating inflammatory foods, and constantly dealing with a toxic environment: these are keeping the inflammation alarm running. This does two harmful things: it diverts valuable immune system response away from its proper role — killing invaders and cancerous cells —to dealing with problems it can’t fix. It also does collateral damage throughout the body, weakening all tissues and making us more susceptible to disease. Chronic inflammation is a danger which we must reduce to get or stay healthy.
Because exercise strengthens the body and improves blood flow, we would expect that it would help reduce inflammation. A recent study, published in Science Advances and conducted at Duke University, found that muscle tissue directly reduces inflammation when exercised. In a laboratory with lab-grown human muscle tissue connected to electrodes to cause contraction and simulate exercise, the researchers found that interferon gamma inflammatory action was blocked by the muscle tissue itself during exercise.
Also called “IFN-y”, this immune system cytokine is a master warrior and a commanding officer. Activated T cells and “natural killer” (NK) cells secrete it to activate macrophages (white blood cells that eat invaders), enhance antigens, ramp up the immune system, coordinate lymphocytes (more white blood cells), and regulate other immune system responses. This all makes IFN-y crucial to immunity.
Since much immune function is militaristic, it is great at destruction of enemies. In “peace time”, you don’t want cytokine warriors overly active, and chronic inflammation is continued over-activity. In the continued presence of interferon gamma’s destructive activities, muscle tends to atrophy — it loses mass and strength. The Duke study showed that exercised muscle inhibits the effects of interferon gamma and avoids the atrophy. This is another example of the remarkable engineering of the body: it can selectively turn off functions as appropriate.
Muscles secrete various peptides, which communicate with other portions of the body. For instance, exercise promotes the release of a myostatin inhibitor called “follistatin” from the liver — this is important because myostatin inhibits build-up of muscle size. A number of interleukins (ILs) are produced by muscle tissue during exercise, and the first to appear is interleukin-6. IL-6, like many cytokines, has both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory functions depending on the signals it receives. When the signal is “exercise” it inhibits other inflammatory cytokines while not inhibiting anti-inflammatory cytokines (such as IL-10), and improves glucose tolerance which is also anti-inflammatory.
A study in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, published by The American Society for Clinical Investigation, stated, “Our studies reveal that endogenous IL-6 plays a crucial anti-inflammatory role in both local and systemic acute inflammatory responses…” They found that TNF-alpha and other pro-inflammatory cytokines were inhibited while IL-10 was unaffected.
Marvel at the design of your body! Rather than simply governing activities by the levels of a certain signaling protein, it sometimes leaves those levels alone and instead produces a counteracting signal with another protein. Rather than waiting for levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines to fall over time, IL-6 reacts immediately to counteract them. This makes the body’s signaling mechanisms extremely complex, with levels of various circulating chemicals changing constantly with activity. Remember, IL-6 generally inhibits inflammatory cytokines without impacting anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10, so you want levels of IL-6 to rise. Levels of IL-6 increase with both intensity and duration of exercise, so long brisk walks and short bursts of high activity both contribute to the rise of IL-6.
Other ways exercise reduces inflammation
Regular exercise changes your metabolism even when at rest. Basically, it changes the body’s environment to one where greater activity is the norm. The body responds by preparing for this greater level of normal activity: muscles and bones get stronger, more blood vessels develop, and the “garbage collecting” mechanisms of your body improve to take away greater amounts of metabolic waste. A sedentary lifestyle tells the body to prepare for inactivity: it stores fat, doesn’t bother with strengthening the muscles and bones because that extra strength is not needed, and the metabolism runs more slowly.
These are the aspects of exercise we all know. “Strength training” isn’t just for athletes — we all engage in some form of body strengthening with our regular activity, or lack thereof.
Extreme exercise can be a problem. With much exercise, the immune system is suppressed longer, and athletes tend to have some increased susceptibility to infections. This is not a problem for most of us! However, it is a caution for those who wish to be athletes — they need to pay particular attention to nutrition and support of their immune systems.
For most of us, more exercise is better. “Within bounds” exercise only does temporary “damage”, which the body will repair quickly, but injuries take longer. Exercise programs are best ramped up gradually and avoid excesses for your level of conditioning. The body will repair sore muscles and make them stronger, but the process does take time. “Weekend warriors” take note — exercise throughout the week is a better strategy.
If you need more motivation for exercise, consider that with each workout you are reducing chronic inflammation. This will pay you back in avoiding or reducing disease in the future, and you will simply feel better overall.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
The beauty is how your body works when you move. Exercise moves vital fluids: blood (oxygen, nutrients, waste products), lymph (immune cells, toxins), and cerebrospinal fluid (oxygen and nutrients to your brain). So it is important to understand to be healthy, or to heal from a health challenge, there is nothing new under the sun. Your body heals the way others healed 1000 years ago.
We have “7 Basic Steps to Total Health”. The fifth step is exercise. 1000 years ago everyone exercised because manual labor and walking everywhere was the norm — now it is not. So we have to take time to move to strengthen the muscles, the heart, the lungs, and unclog the lymph system. Your body responds in union with these steps because this was the way your body has always healed and stayed healthy. The important part is when you do exercise you turn on the cytokines to shut off chronic inflammation — and chronic inflammation is the root of all disease, including cancer. So whether you feel like it or not, get in a daily routine of walking, going up and down stairs, and doing body exercises or some strength training to keep yourself “anti-inflammatory”, because your health and life depend upon it.
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