Understanding the immune system

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

As the seasons change and we head into Autumn and Winter in the UK, our attention turns to how to stay healthy and avoid catching the inevitable winter colds or flu. This year we have the additional challenge of Coronavirus (COVID-19) which has changed the way we all live. What is the link between exercise and the immune system? What can we do to boost our immune system this winter?

What is your immune system?

We have two strands to our immune system; innate and acquired. Innate immunity is what we are born with and is a generic response our bodies produce to try to fight off infection. The innate immune system is fast acting and is the first line of defence within our bodies. Acquired immunity is more targeted and uses the memory of past infection to fight off invading pathogens; only once we’ve been exposed to an infection can the body create anti-bodies and develop acquired immunity. As the response of the acquired immune system is specific to the pathogen, it does take time to come into action.

What are the functions of the immune system?

There are 4 main functions of the immune system and they are to protect, recognise, attack and destroy invading pathogens. There are two types of barriers that our bodies have to protect us against infection - they are: chemical and physical. Chemical barriers include our stomach acid and physical barriers are things such as our skin.

What factors can impact on your risk of infection?

There are several factors that may increase your risk of infection, however, knowledge of these will allow you to take steps to reduce the risk.

Increased exposure to pathogens: when working around horses you are more susceptible to bumping or cutting yourself. Open cuts on your hands for example could increase the risk of pathogens entering the body. To reduce this risk, ensure cuts are covered.

Follow your government's advice and wear a facemask in enclosed areas, maintaining social distance of 2 meters, and avoid crowded places such as towns and cities if possible, as this will also reduce your risk of being exposed to pathogens.

Stress: Being stressed can increase the risk of contracting an infection, this is because your immune system is dampened. Try to avoid stress and take steps to look after your mental health and wellbeing such as talking to someone, creating some time in the day to participate in exercise or mindfulness such as reading a book.

Diet: It is so important to eat a range of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables. Eating a balanced diet and avoiding excessive amounts of processed food should give your body all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals it needs in order to maintain a healthy immune system. It can be tempting when life is busy and stressful to opt for takeaways and quick food. Try to avoid this and think about the benefits of eating well.

Sleep: A lack of sleep can increase your risk of contracting an infection. Remember to get 7 hours of sleep at least a night. See our Sleep blog on tips on how to get the perfect night's sleep.

What impact does exercise have on the immune system?

The answer is about finding a healthy balance as doing no exercise increases your risk of infection. Likewise doing excessive amounts of high intensity exercise will also increase your risk of infection. Moderate intensity exercise (exercise that should feel like a 7/10) for no more than 90 minutes a day will have a positive impact on your immune system, boosting your ability to fight infection. It has been proven that this type of exercise will put you at a reduced risk of infection.

The key saying to remember is Everything in moderation to boost immunity. Moderate your activity levels. Moderate your diet by making sure you eat a range of fruit and vegetables. Moderate life stressors, if you can, and get a moderate to good amount of sleep at night as a minimum. All these things will have a positive impact on your immune system.


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