In a (Health)-Nutshell
- Exercise stresses your body, temporarily increasing acute inflammation.
- When your body recovers, it not only releases enough antioxidants to heal the damage caused by exercise, it also gives you some BONUS antioxidants (yay!), lowering chronic systemic inflammation.
- The key to anti-inflammatory exercise: not too much, not too little. You gotta find the sweet spot!
- Follow the below guidelines for a well-balanced, anti-inflammatory exercise regimen.
Interested in the full story? Let’s dive in!
What is Exercise’s Role in Inflammation?
The idea of intentionally causing damage in order to improve something is a bit of a head scratcher, but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you exercise. This article will explain how exercise induces acute, short-term inflammation, but ultimately decreases systematic, long-term inflammation, making it an important part of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
What Happens to Your Body AFTER You Exercise?
So. Many. Good. Things. Head-to-toe amazingness.
Exercise can help reverse and prevent the most common chronic diseases found in developed countries.
New research comes out almost every day demonstrating the massive benefits of exercise. Here is an incomplete list of what happens in your body:
- Immune system boosts.
- Heart strengthens.
- Bones, muscles, and connective tissues strengthen.
- Antioxidants increase.
- Inflammation decreases.
- Blood sugar lowers.
- Insulin sensitivity improves.
- Brain function improves.
- Memory improves.
- Mood improves.
- Mental stress decreases.
- Cancer risk decreases.
- Sexiness increases. (Yep!)
- Alzheimer’s and dementia risk decreases.
- Aging slows.
- And blah, blah, blah.
You don’t live under a rock, you already know exercise is good for you. But is exercise all rainbows and butterflies, all the time?
What Happens to Your Body WHILE You Exercise?
Stress. Head-to-toe stress.
During a workout, you create an acute inflammatory response in the body. Here are some of the physiological changes that happen:
- Blood flow increases.
- Heart rate increases.
- Breath rate increases.
- Body temperature increases.
- Digestion slows.
- Muscles tear.
- Endorphins (happy feelings!) flow.
- Cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) releases.
- Oxidative stress increases. (Here’s the one we care about most when it comes to inflammation!)
What is Oxidative Stress?
Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. When free radicals aren’t balanced with antioxidants, they damage your DNA, implicating them in virtually every known human disease, including inflammatory conditions.
So Then… Exercise Is Harmful?
Well, sort of.
Not in the long-run at least! Although the act of exercising itself is damaging, the recovery afterwards MORE than makes up for it.
Some degree of inflammation is necessary if you hope to get results from working out because your body gets stronger in response to the stress you put it under by rebuilding and refortifying to deal with future demands. Exercise is basically an acute stressor that ushers in a powerful anti-inflammatory response when it ramps up your antioxidants in response to oxidative stress. (Bye, bye free radicals!) The best part is, when your body revs up your anti-inflammatory defenses, it OVERSHOOTS and ends up LOWERING your systemic, chronic inflammation. Woohoo!
The Exercise Sweet Spot – Moderate Activity in Moderate Amounts
The right level of exercise makes our cells, and therefore our entire body, more robust and healthy. When people exercise in moderate amounts, markers of inflammation decrease.
An ideal weekly routine includes a few bouts of REALLY stressful efforts, interspersed with easy and moderate activity, plus plenty of sleep and recovery. You can see below, the optimum amount of exercise skews slightly toward more frequency and intensity, but then health benefits drop off when you overdo it.
Combat Inflammation with Exercise
It’s tough to prescribe exercise recommendations for anonymous strangers on the internet; each individual’s fitness level varies, and therefore the activities that count as easy/moderate/hard will be different as well. Case in point, when I first started working out, running 6 miles-per-hour was a challenging effort, inducing loads of oxidative stress. Years later, that is an easy-ish pace for me, so I can do it more frequently and for a longer duration without racking up too much stress. Nevertheless, here are some general guidelines.
Move a lot, at an EASY EFFORT, daily: Walk, fidget, do chores, cook, garden, stand at your desk, park far away from the grocery store, think = dance like a wallflower.
Move MODERATELY, 3-5 days per week: 20-60 minutes of low-to-moderate level aerobic movement where you breathe a little heavier than normal, but are NOT out of breath – walk briskly, hike, cycle, play catch, do yoga, shovel snow, swim, think = dance like a little kid.
Lift HEAVY things, 2 days per week: 30 minutes of resistance training where you fatigue your muscles with bodyweight, resistance bands, bags of dirt, furniture, toddlers, dumbbells, or whatever you can find, think = dance like Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.
Work VERY HARD, 1 day per week: 10-30 minutes of high-intensity, ALL OUT EFFORT – sprint, do burpees, jump rope, do tabatas, walk on a steep incline, swing a kettlebell, cycle uphill, jog in water, think = dance like a party girl whose favorite song just came on.
These guidelines are not designed to make you an elite athlete or bodybuilder; they are designed to reduce overall inflammation and cash in on the main health benefits of exercise.
Recover. Recover. RECOVER!
When I first started exercising in my mid-twenties, I WAY overdid it, pushing myself 7 days a week. “GO HARD OR GO HOME! NO PAIN, NO GAIN!” The fitness industry encourages this mindset. (Cue my tendinitis, chronic aches and pains, and general fatigue.) Now as a fitness instructor, I see that my story is a common one. Lots of people in the gym pushing themselves too hard, too many days in a row. Heck, despite knowing better, I still overdo it at times.
Over-exercising is counterproductive; it can burn out your hormones, damage your heart and reduce muscle mass, and cause injuries and mobility restrictions.
Remember that acute inflammation (good, healthy, necessary) is characterized by an inflammatory response that resolves quickly (within a day or two) when the stressor (exercise) is removed. If you don’t let your last exercise-induced inflammatory spike recede before exercising again, you’ll only heap more inflammation on the pile.
Increase activity gradually. The day after a hard workout, pick an easy activity. Get LOTS of good quality sleep. Eat foods rich in antioxidants. Take a high-quality supplement that contains turmeric (like Freedom). And most importantly, have fun!
I didn’t bore you with science-y words yet? Feel like arguing with me? Check my facts, below!
A lifetime of regular exercise slows down aging, study finds, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180308143123.htm
Chronic disease and the link to physical activity, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254612000701
Even Modest Exercise Can Reduce Negative Effects Of Belly Fat, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090423154237.htm
Exercise … It does a body good: 20 minutes can act as anti-inflammatory, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170112115722.htm
Oxidative Stress and Biomaterials, Chapter Two – Oxidative Stress, Inflammation, and Disease, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128032695000024
Oxidative stress: role of physical exercise and antioxidant nutraceuticals in adulthood and aging, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5908316/
The Relationship Between Exercise and Inflammation (and What It Means for Your Workouts), https://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-relationship-between-exercise-and-inflammation-and-what-it-means-for-your-workouts/