Which is better for your health: playing a game of squash, or climbing a flight of stairs? According to Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at Birmingham University, both can be beneficial when it comes to maintaining your overall wellbeing, especially when reducing chronic inflammation. Exercise will burn fat, strengthen your heart, and work your muscles, but it can also work the muscles in your legs enough to protect you from a number of age-related conditions.
Inflammation in the body
Inflammation plays a critical role in your immune response. Your body's inflammatory response is measured by the levels of hormones called cytokines in your blood. Pro-inflammatory cytokines (such as IL6) speed up your recovery after an injury or infection, whereas anti-inflammatory cytokines (such as IL10) help dampen that response once recovery is underway. "The problems start when your pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines levels are out of balance and your pro-inflammatory levels remain too high," explains Professor Lord. "This is likely to be the case if you're overweight and sedentary for much of the time, because IL6 is produced in both fatty tissue and inactive muscle."
Exercise and inflammation
Keeping active is a particularly beneficial method of reducing chronic inflammation, because of the impact exercise has on our hormones. When you exercise, anti-inflammatory IL10 is created in your muscles. As such, although the balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory hormones shifts towards greater levels of inflammation as we age, Professor Lord's studies have shown that people who continue to lead active lives maintain lower levels of IL6 and avoid inflammatory conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and dementia. By the same token, younger adults who are unfit and overweight have inflammation levels similar to those seen in much older people.
Inflammation and endorphins
While staying active enables you to produce essential anti-inflammatory hormones, it can also trigger the release of endorphins. These so-called happy hormones help your body relax and reduce elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Chronic stress and constantly high levels of cortisol have been shown to place strain on your immune system, making you more susceptible to inflammatory disease.1 Some cortisol is needed to maintain a healthy level of immunity, so managing levels can become a complicated balance.2 As such, increasing the number of endorphins in your body through exercise can help to balance your inflammatory levels.
Which type of exercise helps to reduce inflammation?
For exercise to benefit your immune system, it needs to be consistent and regular, explains Professor Lord: "If you spend the whole day seated, your inactive muscle will produce more pro-inflammatory IL6."
According to Professor Lord's research, people who don't regularly walk up and down stairs are at a greater risk of inflammation than those who don't. "We recommend everyone goes up and down a flight of stairs as often as possible; at least 10 times a day," Professor Lord says. "Even if you have arthritis, which is an inflammatory disease, you will benefit from this simple exercise if you stick to it. Although we didn't look at how participants spaced out their stair climbing throughout the day, it makes sense to break up the day evenly with bursts of activity if you have a generally sedentary lifestyle. That way you avoid extended periods of sitting down, when your body will produce more IL6."
Cardio and resistance training
For your muscles to produce an adequate amount of anti-inflammatory IL10 to help prevent chronic inflammation, alternate between cardio - swimming, dancing or cycling - and resistance exercise such as lifting weights or a using a resistance band. What's more, one study found a positive link between the amount of time spent exercising and positive immune response.3 According to Professor Lord, "even standing counts. It engages your muscles and keeps them active, which is why we recommend breaking up a day at your desk with walking calls, for example, or using a standing desk." Whatever your chosen activity, it's important not to push your body too far. Keep your exercise to a sensible level and listen to your body, as over-training causes inflammation rather than reducing it.4
Alongside cardio and resistance exercise, yoga is beneficial for reducing inflammation. The low-intensity, muscle strengthening exercises involved in yoga have been shown to relieve stress, therefore helping to reduce inflammation. Yoga may also enhance the production of adiponectin, a protein hormone with anti-inflammatory properties.5
When it comes to reducing chronic inflammation, something as simple as ensuring regular movement is a step in the right direction. If you'd like to learn more about how to improve immune health, take a look at our dedicated Immunity Advice Centre.