Regular physical activity can boost your health, but just 20 minutes of exercise is a simple do-it-yourself way to quickly reduce inflammation in the body.
If you take a tumble and bang your knee or get a splinter in your finger, odds are you’ll soon experience swelling and tenderness in the injured area. This acute inflammation is simply part of the body’s normal healing process. But another type of inflammation that’s not so obvious — the chronic, internal, and low-grade kind — can have serious health consequences.
However, there’s a simple, do-it-yourself way to reduce levels of chronic inflammation. A University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine study found all it takes is exercising for about 20 minutes to start an anti-inflammation response in the body.
How to reduce inflammation with exercise
During exercise, the brain and sympathetic nervous system (which revs up the heart rate and blood pressure when needed) are activated, releasing hormones that impact your immune system, causing changes in proteins linked to inflammation — especially a cytokine called TNF. To see if brief workouts changed this marker of inflammation, the researchers directed 47 volunteers to walk on a treadmill at an intensity level adjusted to their individual fitness levels.
Samples of the research subjects’ blood were collected before and after the treadmill walks. And the results showed inflammation-linked levels of TNF dropped significantly — and quickly — after the workout.
"Our study found one session of about 20 minutes of moderate treadmill exercise resulted in a five percent decrease in the number of stimulated immune cells producing TNF," said lead researcher Suzi Hong, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at UC, San Diego. "Knowing what sets regulatory mechanisms of inflammatory proteins in motion may contribute to developing new therapies for the overwhelming number of individuals with chronic inflammatory conditions, including nearly 25 million Americans who suffer from autoimmune diseases."
It’s already well established regular physical activity has a host of health benefits, including lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers, as well as helping keep weight under control, strengthening bones and muscles, and fighting depression. The new findings suggest moderate exercise sessions could also prevent or help treat chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis that are associated with low-grade, ongoing inflammation, according to the research team.
Effective, anti-inflammatory workouts don’t have to be intense either. “Twenty minutes to half-an-hour of moderate exercise, including fast walking, appears to be sufficient," Hong said. "Feeling like a workout needs to be at a peak exertion level for a long duration can intimidate those who suffer from chronic inflammatory diseases and could greatly benefit from physical activity."
Chronic inflammation can be insidious
The cause of chronic inflammation isn’t always known, but it can result from lingering infections, abnormal immune system reactions, or even obesity, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Over time, low-grade, ongoing inflammation can lead to serious health issues, damage DNA, and cause some forms of cancer, the NCI states.
"Each time we exercise, we are truly doing something good for our body on many levels, including at the immune cell level," said Hong. "The anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise have been known to researchers, but finding out how that process happens is the key to safely maximizing those benefits."
March 15, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA