Physical Activity and the Immune System: How Therapists Can Help Improve Your Ability to Fight Infections


Most of us know that exercise is good for our health, but we may be less aware of the strong link that exists between exercise and our immune function. Our immune system is a complex network of organs, tissue, and cells that protect our body against germs and foreign substances. When we exercise, our immune system responds in various ways which strengthen our body’s defenses against invading pathogens.

How Exercise Boosts Immune Function

  • Regular physical activity or structured exercise reduces the incidence of communicable diseases, including viral and bacterial infections
  • Clinical trials have shown that engaging in moderate exercise training is associated with decreased risk of developing upper respiratory tract infections
  • Even after a single exercise session, there is increased immune surveillance and regulation
  • Exercising on a nearly daily basis results in cumulative effects of enhanced immune defense
  • Physical activity can assist with weight management. Maintaining a healthy weight is associated with decreased inflammation, and in turn improved immune function
  • Immune function declines gradually as we age, however, habitual exercise can delay aging of the immune system
  • Older adults who participate in regular exercise training have improved antibody responses to influenza vaccination

Do’s and Don’ts of Improving Immunity Through Exercise

  • DO engage in moderate to vigorous exercise. Aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Exercise duration should be in at least 10 minute bouts.
  • DO incorporate strength training two or more times per week targeting all major muscle groups
  • DO progress intensity of exercise program in an incremental fashion
  • DO practice good hygiene while being physically active, including washing hands and wiping down surfaces
  • DON’T perform unusually heavy or vigorous exertion of >1 hour duration
  • DON’T start an extremely ambitious and new exercise routine without appropriate guidance

How Therapists Can Help

A physical or occupational therapist can instruct and guide you in a safe and effective exercise routine. If you are dealing with an injury, disease, or pain that prevents you from exercising or being active, we can help. Your therapist will perform a thorough evaluation and design an individualized treatment plan to address your specific musculoskeletal impairments and functional limitations. We will collaborate with you to set goals so that you can return to the physical activities you enjoy.


  1. Nieman, David C, and Laurel M Wentz. “The Compelling Link between Physical Activity and the Body’s Defense System
  2. .” Journal of Sport and Health Science, May 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6523821/.

  3. Campbell, John P., and James E. Turner. “Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health across the Lifespan.” Frontiers, 15 Mar. 2018, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648/full.
  4. Physical Activity.” World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity. Accessed 27 July 2023.


Written by Riley Mahn, PT, DPT, OCS, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Orthopedic Clinical Specialist

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