Most of us know inflammation as something that happens when we hurt ourselves. Or helping to fight off an infection. But if inflammation continues, even at low levels, it can be a concern and increase your risk for a variety of diseases. Fortunately, regular exercise can help prevent, or at least reduce the risk of chronic inflammation.
Inflammation can be either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation occurs when you bang your knee, it swells up, gets warm and goes red. After some time, the swelling goes away, and your injury heals. In this case inflammation is crucial for your recovery. Inflammation is also needed to help tackle infections by attacking unwanted pathogens. Without it, infections would continue unchecked.
But there are times when inflammation can become chronic. Chronic inflammation is similar to acute inflammation, it just happens over a longer period of time. It could be due to an ongoing injury, or persistent irritant such as air pollution or smoking. It can also be due to an autoimmune disorder in which your body begins to attack healthy tissue, such as with rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation can also increase your risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancers, heart disease, asthma and even Alzheimer’s disease.
The inflammatory response consists of white blood cells such as monocytes, leukocytes, lymphocytes and neutrophils. When you have a complete blood cell (CBC) test, your doctor is looking to see if your white blood cells are elevated, indicating possible infection or inflammation. Other inflammatory factors include C-reactive protein and a class of molecules called cytokines (IL-1, IL-6 and TNF-α).
A prime example of inflammation being involved in the disease process is with atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is considered an inflammatory disease. It has many of the features of chronic inflammation, including monocytes and leukocytes and other inflammatory markers involved in the formation of plaque. In other instances, chronic inflammation is involved in the development of insulin resistance that can lead to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
Exercise and Inflammation
It’s well-known regular activity and exercise are effective at preventing and treating many chronic diseases. Exercise may be effective at preventing these diseases, in part, through indirect and direct effects of reducing chronic inflammation.
Indirectly, exercise is known to reduce the chances for obesity and reduce stress. Both obesity and chronic stress are associated with chronic inflammation. Obesity is considered a disease of low-grade, ongoing inflammation due to increased levels of inflammatory factors in the blood. Chronic stress can also lead to chronic inflammation through the release of inflammatory factors. As exercise can help in preventing and managing obesity and stress, it also results in lower chances of getting inflammatory-related diseases.
Directly, exercise is also effective at managing diseases in which chronic inflammation is the main driver of the disease and pain symptoms. Regular exercise has been associated with lower chances of getting rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune and inflammatory disease resulting in pain and swelling. Exercise may prevent rheumatoid arthritis as it maintains bone and muscle strength, which keeps joints healthy. And exercise can also reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, suggesting an anti-inflammatory effect.
How does exercise reduce inflammation?
In the short term, exercise can lead to an inflammatory response. This is entirely normal. When you exercise, you’re stressing the working muscles. This can lead to micro-tears. You might also find your muscles being sore. To help you recover, your body engages the inflammatory response to heal your muscles and build them stronger than before. How extensive an inflammatory response can depend on how hard your exercise is. The higher intensity your exercise is, the greater the inflammatory response.
However, a single bout moderate intensity exercise (usually <1 hour) may result in no inflammatory response, or even be anti-inflammatory. It’s believed the epinephrine (adrenaline) released during exercise is responsible for reducing the inflammatory marker TNF-α. This doesn’t mean high intensity exercise should be avoided, as high intensity training has own benefits. Rather, when performing high intensity exercise allow sufficient time for recovery before another similar session.
Specifically, regular exercise can lower levels of IL-6, C-reactive protein and TNF-α as reported in a review of 11 studies. However, a separate study found no change in inflammatory markers over 12 weeks of regular exercise. In this study, the participants were much younger than in the review, which may mean their inflammatory marker levels were already low to begin with. A subsequent study exercised isolated muscle cells following exposure to chronic inflammation. The exercise made the muscles more resistant to the effects of chronic inflammation.
So when your exercising next, besides doing something you enjoy, you’ll be working your muscles and your inflammatory system to help prevent disease.
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