Inflammation, Disease and Exercise

You may have heard the term “chronic inflammation” but may not know what it is or why it is important. Inflammation is an immune system response to harmful agents or damaged cells and is usually termed acute or chronic. Chronic inflammation refers to a more gradual, prolonged inflammatory response that involves progressive changes in various cell types and functions that can persist for several years with deleterious effects. For example, chronic low-grade inflammation associated with obesity plays a central role in the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (the most common form of diabetes.)

Similarly, this type of inflammation also contributes to the underlying mechanism responsible for the atherosclerotic process in the coronary arteries, which is the hallmark of the most common form of heart disease and associated with stroke. Further, a number of inflammatory markers are known to increase with advancing age, likely contributing to the development of a number of age-associated diseases (mentioned above but also including dementia and cognitive impairment.)

Now the good news. Participation in regular aerobic exercise has been shown to have numerous beneficial effects resulting in an improved inflammatory profile and overall immune function in individuals suffering from chronic low-grade inflammation. These benefits stem from the anti-inflammatory effects associated with physical activity. Not only can regular exercise help individuals who already have chronic inflammation and the associated diseases, but exercise can also serve as a prevention strategy to lower the risk of ever developing chronic inflammation in healthy populations.

The extent to which regular exercise will exert these beneficial effects will be dependent upon the frequency, duration and intensity of your exercise program. While the exact causes for this anti-inflammatory effect of exercise are not completely understood, contributing factors include the reduction in visceral (belly) fat and alterations in the responsiveness to stress hormones.

Along those lines, it has been known for some time that chronic stress plays a significant role in the development of prolonged low-grade inflammation. While short, transient periods of stress do not have this negative impact, more prolonged periods of stress, (whether from financial, family/relationship, work environments, etc.) clearly have multiple deleterious effects on your overall health and risk of disease. Here again, participation in regular exercise can help to offset the negative effects of chronic stress. Studies have shown that exercise can improve your “resistance” to the negative effects of stress thereby decreasing the unwanted impact it would likely have on your immune system, inflammatory response and eventual risk for disease.

Finally, we all realize that a number of our biological systems decline as we get older. This includes a decline in immune function accompanied by an increase in chronic inflammation. Several studies have demonstrated that an inverse relationship exists between the amount of physical activity one engages in and the degree of inflammation in older populations. Thus, of the many potential health benefits associated with regular physical activity, you can add a reduction in the pro-inflammatory state to the list.

While the benefits of regular exercise are numerous, it is important to recognize that some individuals have a compromised immune response and must balance rest with exercise and monitor their health. An altered immune response can be due to the type of underlying disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, or medication interactions.