We all know exercise is good for us. In addition to helping you maintain a healthy body weight and strong muscles, moving your body on a regular basis has been associated with the reduced risk of health problems like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and more.
Exercise can also have a hugely positive impact on your mental health. Working out regularly may alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it’s also an excellent way to keep your stress levels under control.
How can exercise possibly be so good for so many things? Among its many actions, exercise works to reduce one of the primary causes of illness in the body: inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Although generally cast as harmful, inflammation actually plays a critical role in the immune system’s response to infection and trauma. When you’re injured, inflammation acts as a signal to your immune system that it needs to heal the damage. (Think about the way an ankle swells after it has been sprained.)
Inflammation also alerts the immune system to the presence of invaders like viruses and bacteria that can make you sick, which is why your throat may get sore and inflamed when you’re coming down with a cold. This type of short-term inflammatory response to injury or infection is called acute inflammation, and it’s perfectly normal and healthy.
But what happens when inflammation persists? If the inflammatory response goes on for too long or occurs in the wrong place within the body, it can become a problem. Known as chronic inflammation, this inappropriately extended inflammatory process can affect the whole body and has been linked to heart disease and cancer as well as autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Systemic inflammation is also a common symptom of chronic Lyme disease.
How does exercise reduce inflammation?
Science has long suggested a connection between exercise and lowered inflammation, but a 2017 study conducted at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine offered an understanding of how exercise works to reduce inflammation.
The study found exercising reduces inflammation by stimulating the immune system in a way that produces an anti-inflammatory cellular response. Exercise activates the brain and sympathetic nervous system, enabling the body to do what it needs (like raise blood pressure and speed up heart rate, among other things) to perform work.
According to researchers, this activation of the brain and sympathetic nervous system causes immunological responses, including the production of proteins called cytokines. One of the cytokines produced during exercise is TNF, which is crucial for the regulation of both local and systemic inflammation.
The findings of this study may have broad implications for the treatment of chronic inflammation. As the study’s senior author, Suzi Hong, PhD, told UC San Diego Health: ‘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.’
How much daily exercise is required to reduce inflammation?
Perhaps the most compelling part of this study’s findings is how little exercise is required to reduce inflammation. Researchers found that one 20-minute exercise session was enough to stimulate an anti-inflammatory cellular response.
Not only do you not need to exercise for a long time to reap anti-inflammatory benefits, you also don’t have to overexert yourself. Walking on a treadmill at a moderate intensity level was enough to reduce inflammation in this study. In fact, a single 20-minute session of moderate treadmill exercise resulted in a 5% decrease in the number of immune cells producing pro-inflammatory TNF.
How can people with Lyme disease incorporate exercise into their daily routine?
Chronic inflammation, which can manifest as swollen and painful joints, is a common problem for Lyme patients. Although it may be the furthest thing from your mind when you’re struggling with symptoms of Lyme disease, incorporating just 20 minutes of moderate exercise into your day can go a long way toward reducing systemic inflammation. Here are some suggestions to help you motivate:
- Choose simple exercises like brisk walking, and don’t push yourself too hard.
- Try using a fitness tracker that allows you to set daily exercise goals. You’ll be less likely to skip your evening stroll if it means hitting your step count for the day.
- Find a workout buddy who will keep you company and hold you accountable.
- If you prefer to exercise solo, online groups can be a nice way to connect with others. You may even discover a group for fellow Lyme disease patients who are also fitness enthusiasts.
- Make it fun! Crank up some music and dance, or go for a scenic hike.
Chronic inflammation is a problem for many people, and it can be debilitating for Lyme disease patients. Now that you know it only takes 20 minutes of daily exercise to reduce inflammation in the body, you can take steps to incorporate this positive lifestyle change into your treatment plan.