Physical Activity and Overall Wellness and Resilience
A reader asked me about a recent study from the Tokyo Institute of Technology that said that daily strenuous exercise could shorten rather than prolong our lifespan. In their study, the authors theorize that excessive endurance training effectively neutralizes the usual benefits of exercise. I wanted to clarify a few things with my readers because while the study is correct, it does not mean you must stop exercising. Physical activity is critical.
Exercise can dramatically and often positively affect your overall health and wellness. It can also aid in healing or correcting issues within the body. However, a happy medium must be found, and this medium will be different for everyone. Understand that exercising too hard can actually have a negative impact on your health and leave you susceptible to common forms of infection or increase the odds of injury. However, at the same time, a sedentary lifestyle is actually worse.
To help explain this a little better, I have compiled several studies for your consideration. Each study looked at something different regarding exercise and its connection to overall wellness. Yet, each paints a very clear picture of the positive impact of exercise.
What follows is a brief summary of each study. I will include the citation if you are interested in researching it further or wish to explore the study’s limitations. I will conclude with a general recommendation at the end.
Study #1: Broman, F. J. J., Abraham, C. M., Thomas, K., Canu, W. H., & Nieman, D. C. (2018). Anxiety sensitivity mediates the relationship between exercise frequency and anxiety and depression symptomology.
The investigation of this study focused primarily on the benefits of physical activity on individuals with high anxiety sensitivity, which is essentially a fear of harmful outcomes. The team notes that physical activity provides a slew of psychological benefits, such as a reduction in risk for psychological disorders, a reduction of overall anxiety and depression, and a reduction in symptoms of things like panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. This, to the point that exercise frequency significantly predicted anxiety sensitivity and depression scores. These benefits are assumed across various activities, including running, brisk walking, playing a sport, or any substantial activity that is conducted to increase fitness.
Study #2: Feifei Wang, & Boros, S. (2019). The relationship between physical activity, stress, life satisfaction and sleep quality.
This study focuses on the difference in stress, life satisfaction, and sleep quality between physically active and non-active people. A significant finding is that with an increase in age, the relationship between physical activity and sleep quality becomes more substantial, and the correlation between the two becomes tighter. The finding is important to note, especially regarding the importance and association of sleep and overall immune function. The researchers conclude that those with a sedentary lifestyle are more easily stressed and that stress is significantly associated with poor sleep quality. This ultimately translates into a weaker immune system.
Study #3: Goncharenko, O., Belikova, M., & Vdovenko, L. (2020). Changes in cellular immunity indicators in men who did not engage in exercising before the start of the study, and among basketball athletes of the level of higher sports achievements under the influence of systematic exercises in power fitness.
The researchers of this study compared athletes with both active and inactive adults and found that the immune response of the elite athlete and the generally active participants was markedly higher. The authors clarify that elite athletes tend to have increased anti-inflammatory markers and T-Cells during sports activities and that these changes persist for more extended periods compared to those who limit their physical activity. Furthermore, the authors found that even a brief cessation of exercise usually increased the frequency of acute respiratory disease.
Something to note is that while exercise increases immune function, people who have not been involved in physical activity before would likely require longer training periods to achieve similar results as the physically fit. I will talk about this a little more, but there is also a temporary immune suppression that often comes with extended bouts of vigorous exercise and perhaps a link with an increased frequency of acute respiratory disease. So, while their conclusion is likely correct, it would be more responsible to suggest a progression into physical activity to avoid complications regarding severe microbiome alterations and overly dramatic immune suppression.
Study #4: Jamurtas, A. Z., Fatouros, I. G., Deli, C. K., Georgakouli, K., Poulios, A., Draganidis, D., Papanikolaou, K., Tsimeas, P., Chatzinikolaou, A., Avloniti, A., Tsiokanos, A., & Koutedakis, Y. (2018). The Effects of Acute Low-Volume HIIT and Aerobic Exercise on Leukocyte Count and Redox Status.
In this study, the researchers compare Continuous Aerobic Exercise with Low Volume High-Intensity Interval Training. The study emphasizes the point that the production of free radicals (which damage the growth, development, and survival of cells in the body) can increase up to 20-fold during exercise and up to 100-fold in active muscle groups. The caution is that when the amount of free radicals exceeds what the body can handle via the antioxidant defense mechanisms, the result is exercise-induced oxidative stress, which can result in a series of immune response changes that hinder the ability to resist common infections. The researchers found that these disturbances were exacerbated and prolonged after Low Volume High-Intensity Interval Training and that such disturbances lasted as long as 24 hours post-exercise.
More research is needed on this topic, but the authors conclude that while studies report positive effects of Low Volume High-Intensity Interval Training in healthy participants, the information obtained in this study should just be a consideration when an exercise program is being developed for health purposes. In other words, and as I had mentioned previously, it would be wise to slowly progress in your program when starting out instead of just trying to go 100 mph and for long periods.
Study #5: K., K. (2017). Inflammation during Obesity – Pathophysiological Concepts and Effects of Physical Activity.
The author of this study emphasizes the association between diseases such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease with a high prevalence of obesity. The researcher demonstrates that regular exercise has systemic and local anti-inflammatory effects that help protect the body against the development of several chronic diseases by targeting both metabolic and immunologic processes that result in a decrease in metaflammation. Interestingly, the researcher adds that while aerobic exercise can reduce fat, which results in a reduction in chronic inflammation and the occurrence of inflammatory diseases, it also seemingly increases health-beneficial gut bacteria populations, nitric oxide production, and the body’s antioxidant defenses; which helps further reduce inflammation in the body.
Study #6: Kakanis, M., Peake, J., Hooper, S., Gray, B., & Marshall-Gradisnik, S. (2010). The open window of susceptibility to infection after acute exercise in healthy young male elite athletes.
This study presents the “Open Window Theory” idea and attempts to address some of the limitations of other studies. I include it here because I believe people should be well aware of the risk. The “Open Window” is characterized by a brief suppression of immune function following an acute bout of endurance exercise that might increase susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and other diseases. The researchers note that while exercise ultimately results in improved immune function, the immune system is seemingly compromised for several hours post endurance training. This suppression was marked by lowered neutrophil phagocytic function, a change in NK cell numbers, and total lymphocyte counts.
The point is that exercise is excellent for the immune system, and this study demonstrates that the immune system generally recovers within 24 hours of exercise. However, it is important to note that the dramatic changes witnessed during this study began to occur at about two hours post-exercise. While endurance exercise has not yet been linked to an occurrence of upper respiratory infection, the timing of susceptibility is important to note and may provide a basis for future studies. I think we can use this information to emphasize and ensure proper nutrition and rest post-exercise.
Study #7: Minuzzi, L. G., Rama, L., Chupel, M. U., Rosado, F., dos Santos, J. V., Simpson, R., Martinho, A., Paiva, A., & Teixeira, A. M. (2018). Effects of lifelong training on senescence and mobilization of T lymphocytes in response to acute exercise.
The researchers in this study note that aging dramatically and often negatively impacts the immune system. Specifically, T-Cells deteriorate and accumulate over time, leaving the body susceptible to acute and chronic diseases. In this study, the researchers examined master athletes who partook in regular exercise for 20 years and compared them to a control group of otherwise healthy individuals who did not participate in regular exercise over the same period. The researchers found that maintaining high aerobic fitness levels during the natural course of aging can prevent the accumulation of deteriorating T-Cells, which ultimately results in more significant immune function over time.
In other words, if you want a more robust immune system, ensure that you get the appropriate amount of physical activity each week and ensure that it becomes a habit.
Study #8: Petelin, A., & Mohorko, N. (2017). Exercise and the Ageing Immune System.
This study, published in the Annales Kinesiologiae, explores the impact of exercise on immunosenescence, which is the gradual deterioration of the immune system via natural aging. The authors focus on age-related diseases, such as heart disease, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and type II diabetes, and suggest that such conditions are often the result of “inflammaging,” a chronic progressive increase in the inflammatory status of the body as we age. The study concludes that exercise activates the release of hormones, myokines, and cytokines, contributing to anti-inflammatory effects and the possible reduction of immunosenescence. They further explain that the decrease in visceral fat mass leads to a reduction of pro-inflammatory adipokines and that aerobic exercise likely provides a substantial avenue for inflammation reduction, reducing or limiting disease progression.
Study #9: Shu-Hui Yeh, Hsiu-Ling Lai, Chiu-Yueh Hsiao, Li-Wei Lin, Yu-Kuan Chuang, Yu-Ying Yang, & Yang, K. D. (2014). Moderate Physical Activity of Music Aerobic Exercise Increases Lymphocyte Counts, Specific Subsets, and Differentiation.
The authors of this study focus on the benefits of moderate physical activity in middle-aged women as compared to middle-aged women who did not exercise. An exciting finding was that the women who engaged in moderate physical exercise had increased lymphocyte counts and enhanced immune function, and the women who did not exercise at all did not. The authors recommend moderate physical activity to strengthen lymphocyte function. However, exhaustive exercise (overly-vigorous) usually translates to transient immunosuppression and a higher risk of upper respiratory tract infections. Again, moderate and regular physical activity is likely best.
Study #10: Stroe, A. Z., Axelerad, S. D., Axelerad, D. D., & Axelerad, A. D. (2020). Neurorehabilitation through Exercise in Parkinson’s Disease Patients.
Exercise can positively impact neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease as well. The researchers of this study note that Parkinson’s disease is a “multi-system” neurodegenerative disease that includes issues such as muscle rigidity, postural instability, mood disorders, dementia, orthostatic hypotension, and sleep disorders. And while medications can help, they are mostly addressing symptoms and often come with side effects that hinder adherence. However, the authors present new information that via neuroplasticity, physical exercise can address issues related to attention, thinking, memory, walking, mobility, posture, and balance, which are complaints that Parkinson’s disease patients usually have. All this, along with better sleep and a reduction in depression and anxiety, which results in a better quality of life.
NOTE: While this study focused primarily on Parkinson’s disease, it should be noted that these benefits are likely universal in nature.
Study #11: Yang, H., & Chen, H. (2019). Effects of Aerobic Exercise and Resistance Exercise on Chronic Inflammation in Obese Adolescents.
The researchers of this study focus on obesity and its relation to the body’s chronic inflammatory state. Aside from reducing weight, having a lower BMI, and having a slimmer waistline, the data suggest that resistance and aerobic exercise can reduce overall inflammation, positively impacting chronic diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, and fatty liver. Furthermore, the data indicate that the inclusion of resistance training is likely better than aerobic exercise alone because resistance training promotes protein synthesis and increases the body’s resting metabolic rate, while a rebound effect is likely when using aerobic exercise alone.
A couple of things to note here is that males are generally better at losing weight than women, so results vary. Additionally, aerobic exercise burns the fat directly, while resistance exercise promotes long-term fat consumption. Finally, the report does not emphasize the integration of both aerobic and resistance training, which is likely of great benefit to most.
As you can see, exercise has a lot to offer, so do not confuse the avoidance of overly-vigorous exercise with the avoidance of exercise in general. I believe that these studies (among many others) demonstrate that exercise is essential to overall health and wellness for various reasons. Again, finding that happy medium is critical, though, because too much exercise or exercise that is too vigorous can sometimes result in a negative outcome.
I would also caution against adopting the idea that weight loss requires exercise. That is simply not true. Weight loss happens at the plate, not the gym. The gym merely helps that process along. Similarly, the gym will be pointless if you do not adhere to a proper (omnivorous) diet.
Remember that the key is frequent but moderate exercise. If you must engage in excessive endurance training, ensure that you make time for plenty of rest. The current recommendations are to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. Several bouts of resistance training and the occasional balance exercise should also be included. In combination, and with a solid diet consisting of whole foods (minus processed and refined foods), you will be well on your way to a healthy and fit lifestyle that keeps you feeling great!
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Dr. Robertson is a health researcher and educator, not a physician. The information provided here is not medical advice, a professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or service to you or any other individual. The information provided is for educational and anecdotal purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional care. You should not use the information in place of a visit, call consultation, or the advice of your physician or other healthcare providers. Dr. Robertson is not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or additional information, services, or product you obtain or utilize. IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY CALL 911 OR YOUR PHYSICIAN.
- Broman, F. J. J., Abraham, C. M., Thomas, K., Canu, W. H., & Nieman, D. C. (2018). Anxiety sensitivity mediates the relationship between exercise frequency and anxiety and depression symptomology. Stress & Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 34(4), 500–508.
- Feifei Wang, & Boros, S. (2019). The relationship between physical activity, stress, life satisfaction and sleep quality. Journal of Physical Education & Sport, 19, 227–234.
- Goncharenko, O., Belikova, M., & Vdovenko, L. (2020). Changes in cellular immunity indicators in men who did not engage in exercising before the start of the study, and among basketball athletes of the level of higher sports achievements under the influence of systematic exercises in power fitness. Journal of Physical Education & Sport, 20, 354–358.
- Jamurtas, A. Z., Fatouros, I. G., Deli, C. K., Georgakouli, K., Poulios, A., Draganidis, D., Papanikolaou, K., Tsimeas, P., Chatzinikolaou, A., Avloniti, A., Tsiokanos, A., & Koutedakis, Y. (2018). The Effects of Acute Low-Volume HIIT and Aerobic Exercise on Leukocyte Count and Redox Status. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 17(3), 501–508.
- K., K. (2017). Inflammation during Obesity – Pathophysiological Concepts and Effects of Physical Activity. / Entzündung und Adipositas – pathophysiologische Konzepte und Effekte körperlicher Aktivität. German Journal of Sports Medicine / Deutsche Zeitschrift Fur Sportmedizin, 68(7/8), 163–168.
- Kakanis, M., Peake, J., Hooper, S., Gray, B., & Marshall-Gradisnik, S. (2010). The open window of susceptibility to infection after acute exercise in healthy young male elite athletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 13. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2010.10.642
- Minuzzi, L. G., Rama, L., Chupel, M. U., Rosado, F., dos Santos, J. V., Simpson, R., Martinho, A., Paiva, A., & Teixeira, A. M. (2018). Effects of lifelong training on senescence and mobilization of T lymphocytes in response to acute exercise. Exercise Immunology Review, 24, 34–46.
- Petelin, A., & Mohorko, N. (2017). Exercise and the Ageing Immune System. / Gibanje in Imunski Sistem Med Procesom Staranja. Annales Kinesiologiae, 8(1), 23–32.
- Shu-Hui Yeh, Hsiu-Ling Lai, Chiu-Yueh Hsiao, Li-Wei Lin, Yu-Kuan Chuang, Yu-Ying Yang, & Yang, K. D. (2014). Moderate Physical Activity of Music Aerobic Exercise Increases Lymphocyte Counts, Specific Subsets, and Differentiation. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 11(7), 1386–1392.
- Stroe, A. Z., Axelerad, S. D., Axelerad, D. D., & Axelerad, A. D. (2020). Neurorehabilitation through Exercise in Parkinson’s Disease Patients. Ovidius University Annals, Series Physical Education & Sport/Science, Movement & Health, 20(1), 67–71. Yang, H., & Chen, H. (2019). Effects of Aerobic Exercise and Resistance Exercise on Chronic Inflammation in Obese Adolescents. 2019 International Conference on Internet of Things (IThings) and IEEE Green Computing and Communications (GreenCom) and IEEE Cyber, Physical and Social Computing (CPSCom) and IEEE Smart Data (SmartData). doi: 10.1109/ithings/greencom/cpscom/smartdata.2019.00066