Can Exercise Keep You From Getting Sick?

Getting regular physical activity could lower your risk of coming down with something and help ease your symptoms if you do become ill.

woman blowing nose during exercise outdoors

Updated on February 3, 2023.

Odds are you know someone who seems to get sick less frequently than other people. While that person might just be lucky, they may also be getting more physical activity.

Exploring the link between fitness and illness

Exercise can’t prevent infection entirely. But some research suggests that people who work out regularly may have reduced chances of becoming sick. They may also experience shorter, less-severe symptoms compared to sedentary people, or people who don't get much movement.

In 2021, for example, the journal Sports Medicine published a meta-analysis looking at the effects of exercise on the immune systems of more than 400,000 people. Researchers found that those who regularly worked out had a 31 percent lower risk of infections, such as the flu or pneumonia, and a 37 percent lower chance of dying from an infection.

For another study published in 2011 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists followed about 1,000 adults for 12 weeks during cooler fall and winter months. Analyses showed that people who said they exercised at least five times a week spent 43 percent less time being sick compared with those who reported exercising one day or not at all. The active group’s cold symptoms also tended to be about a third less severe.

Buffed-up immunity

How does a good sweat affect immunity? In part, it has to do with aerobic exercise. Cardio activity is believed to ramp up blood levels of antibodies and white blood cells, both of which help protect against illness. But that’s not all. Getting physical activity:

  • Can help expel bacteria from the lungs
  • Causes a temporary rise in body temperature, which may help fight infection
  • Reduces stress, which could lead to fewer colds 

For health benefits, the federal government recommends that most healthy adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week. Moderate exercise can look like brisk walking, dancing, or any activity that raises your heart rate and breaks a sweat. Vigorous exercise includes running, swimming laps, and other activities during which you're breathing hard and fast enough that it's difficult to talk.

Once you begin working out, try to remain consistent with it over time. Though any amount of exercise can boost your health, regular physical activity imparts the most benefits.

Exercising with a cold

If you have a cold with no fever, mild-to-moderate exercise is considered safe and may even help open up your airways. In these cases, a less-intense workout is best to avoid worsening your condition. It’s always a good idea to prioritize hydration, as well. However, if you’re experiencing a fever, chest congestion, muscle aches, or upset stomach, you’re better off skipping workouts for a while.

COVID and exercise

In 2022, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a review that linked consistent, moderate-intensity exercise to a reduced risk of infection, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. While exercise isn’t recommended for people with an active fever or chest congestion, it may be an effective tool in minimizing COVID’s effects, due to its anti-inflammatory benefits. Speak with your healthcare provider about whether it's the right decision for you.

Article sources open article sources

Chastin SFM, Abaraogu U, et al. Effects of Regular Physical Activity on the Immune System, Vaccination and Risk of Community-Acquired Infectious Disease in the General Population: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2021;51(8):1673-1686. 
Nieman DC, Henson DA, et al. Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2011;45:987-992.
MedlinePlus. Exercise and immunity. Page last updated January 29, 2022. 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity guidelines for Americans. 2018. Accessed January 15, 2023.
Piercy KL, Troiano RP, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2020-2028. 
Graff RM, Jennings K, et al. T-cell counts in response to acute cardiorespiratory or resistance exercise in physically active or physically inactive older adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2022;133(1):119-129. 
American Lung Association. Can you exercise with a cold? February 26, 2019.
Ezzatvar Y, Ramírez-Vélez R, et al. Physical activity and risk of infection, severity and mortality of COVID-19: a systematic review and non-linear dose–response meta-analysis of data from 1 853 610 adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2022;56:1188-1193.
Hill AL, Whitfield G, Morford M, et al. Brief Summary of Findings on the Association Between Physical Inactivity and Severe COVID-19 Outcomes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019.
Arazi H, Falahati A, et al. Moderate intensity aerobic exercise potential favorable effect against COVID-19: the role of renin-angiotensin system and immunomodulatory effects. Front Phys. 2021;12. 

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