Here’s what doctors are saying about the results of a new vaccine-related study.
Exercise has a wide variety of health benefits beyond just keeping fit, and one of the main ones is boosting immunity. And it turns out, according to a new to studyexercising regularly could increase the benefits of your COVID-19 vaccine.
The researchers examined 200,000 men and women in South Africa, collecting data on vaccinations, COVID results and exercise routines. They found that the COVID vaccination was effective in protecting them against serious infections. However, it was more effective in those who exercised frequently.
How exercise can help with the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine
As the study shows, those who received Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccine (Ad26.COV2.S) and exercised at a high level were nearly 3 times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID than people who were vaccinated but they only had low levels of exercise, Dr William Liinternationally renowned physician, researcher, president/founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation, and author of Eat to beat the disease, Explain. This study was unique in that it analyzed a harsh endpoint of hospitalization and also documented exercise using wearable devices.
Researchers have known for some time that exercise stimulates the immune system and can increase the immune response to a vaccine by creating more protective antibodies in the blood. Exercise also activates immune T cells that destroy viruses and also improves the layer of immune defenses that line the nasal passages where respiratory viruses enter the body, says Dr. Li.
Regular exercise also promotes better sleep at night, and sleep quality is also important for immune response.
One bonus point: Those who take the time to exercise, especially those who engage in high-intensity exercise, are more likely to take better care of their overall health, including making healthier diet and lifestyle choices. Dietary choices, specifically eating more whole plant foods such as blueberries, tree nuts, and omega-3-rich seafood, have been shown to improve immunity, adds Dr. Li.
“We have limited data on the effect of exercise on COVID vaccine efficacy,” he says. Dr. F. Perry Wilson, MDYale Medicine. “But we do know that exercise alone appears to be quite protective against poor outcomes from COVID. People who exercise frequently are less likely to be hospitalized due to COVID or to die due to COVID complications.”
The BMJ study provides us with the best data to date to suggest that exercise has a direct effect on the immune response to vaccination, showing that the efficacy of the vaccine is greater among those who exercise more.
This is a very subtle but important point. It would not be surprising if sedentary people had worse COVID outcomes, that has been shown in multiple previous studies. But the vaccine should still work in that group, adds Dr. Wilson. And he actually does, reducing the hospitalization rate by 60%. But what is striking is that it works. better in the most active group, a group that, in general, is less likely to be hospitalized.
Exercise is a complex physiological state: it increases heart rate, dilates certain blood vessels (and constricts others), and increases levels of certain hormones (and decreases others), so the pathways by which exercise can influence the system immune system are numerous, explains Dr. Wilson. But he’s not surprised that the overall effect is good: Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body, and it’s probably pretty good for your immune system, too.
“There are probably many reasons why exercise can make COVID vaccines more effective,” he says. Justin Elbayar, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group. “According to the study, physical activity has been shown to have effects at many levels, including the organelle level, allowing people to have a combination of enhanced levels of antibodies, enhance T-cell immunity surveillance and psychosocial factors. This suggests that exercise encourages your body to mount a more robust immune response, which makes vaccines more effective.”
The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle
The study also showed that the vaccinated group who exercised for a minimum of 1 hour each week were 1.4 times less likely to be hospitalized compared to sedentary, vaccinated participants. This indicates that the vaccines were about 12 percent more effective in those who exercised compared to those who did not.
“Sedentary lifestyles are associated with weaker health defenses in general, including immunity. This is one explanation for the lower efficacy of vaccination in preventing hospitalization,” says Dr. Li. “People who lead a sedentary lifestyle also tend to make poorer dietary choices, which can influence the gut microbiome and thus increase inflammation and lower immune responses. Getting even a little exercise can counteract these effects.”
Even brief bouts of exercise can change blood chemicals (hormones, cytokines, and chemokines) and alter sugar metabolism, among many other effects, says Dr. Wilson. It’s not yet clear how those episodes interact with the immune system, but it seems that something is going on to drive the production of immune molecules like antibodies when you exercise.
“One of the most important effects of exercise is the improvement in the way our bodies heal and deal with injuries and illnesses,” says Dr. Elbayer. “The reason why vaccines may be more effective in those who exercise is probably multifactorial. A more robust immune response to vaccines plays a very important role.”
The amount of exercise you need per week to reap the benefits
The BMJ study showed that there was a dose-response to the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine in preventing hospitalization. The people who got the most benefit exercised for at least 150 minutes a week at a level that raised their heart rate to 70 to 80 percent of maximum, explains Dr. Li.
But even moderate exercise, defined as 60 to 149 minutes per week, was beneficial in reducing the risk of hospitalization.
The bottom line: When it comes to benefit from Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccines in this study, some exercise was better than none, and the more exercise people got, the more protection they received. This shows that there are steps people can take to improve the effectiveness of other vaccines as well, adds Dr. Li.
“The BMJ study suggests that there is a dose-response relationship here. That means even minimal exercise might have some benefit, and more exercise has more benefits, says Dr. Wilson. “My advice when reading this study is what I tell my patients all the time: do whatever exercise you can, and when you can do it comfortably, try to do a little more.”