Exercise may potentiate the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 or influenza

According to a new study of exercise and immunization, a long brisk walk, jog or bike ride after the next vaccine against COVID-19 or the flu may increase the benefits of vaccination.

The study, which involved 70 people and about 80 mice, looked at antibody reactions after an injection of the flu vaccine or both rounds of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. People who exercised for 90 minutes immediately after the injection were found to produce more antibodies than people who did not. The additional boost in immunity, which should help reduce the risk of getting seriously ill from these diseases, has not led to an increase in side effects.

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The results of the study are preliminary and need to be tested on more people. But these findings add to the growing body of evidence that physical activity and physical activity can push our bodies to become more resistant to the flu and COVID-19 vaccines.

Exercise changes “almost all” of our immune cells.

The link between exercise and immunity, in general, is well established. Most studies show that physical activity helps protect us from colds and other mild upper respiratory infections.

Being in shape can also ease the severity of an infection if we get sick. Last year, a study of nearly 50,000 Californians who contracted COVID-19, such as those who played sports regularly before diagnosis, was about twice as likely to be hospitalized as people who rarely trained.

On the other hand, extreme exercise can undermine our immunity. Marathoners often report getting sick after races, and laboratory mice that run to exhaustion tend to become more susceptible to the flu than sedentary animals.

Overall, however, it can be seen that exercise provides a powerful stimulus for our immune system. “The behavior of almost all populations of immune cells in the bloodstream changes in some way during and after exercise,” – sums up a recent review of past research on this topic.

So it should come as no surprise that exercise can also affect the response to the vaccine. In some past studies, performing arm exercises before influenza vaccination increased antibody levels and specialized immune cells thereafter more than a relaxed sitting. And in a 2020 study, elite athletes in the middle of training seasons produced more antibodies and immune cells after being vaccinated against the flu than a control group of healthy young people.

Is there a proper “dose” of exercise?

But few of these previous studies have focused on determining the best time and number of exercises to enhance the effect of the vaccine, and none have examined images of COVID-19 that have only been available since late 2020. So, for a new study recently published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, a team of immunologists and exercise scientists from Iowa State University in Ames asked people who get vaccinated against the flu or COVID-19 to work too.

They began by inviting dozens of healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 87 who said they occasionally play sports to come to the flu vaccination lab. The researchers also coordinated with local COVID-19 vaccination sites to recruit the 28 men and women who made the first injections against COVID-19. Before vaccinations, all volunteers took blood to check antibody levels.

They then randomly assigned everyone to either sit quietly or exercise for 90 minutes after they received the stroke. Previous studies have shown that exercise after a vaccine boosts the immune response more than previous levels of activity. And they stopped for 90 minutes as the overall goal of exercise because unpublished research from their lab showed that exercise significantly increased blood production of a substance called interferon alpha, which can trigger the formation of immune cells.

Volunteers then engaged in sports, cycled, or walked quickly for 90 minutes after vaccinations either in the lab or on the sidewalks near the COVID-19 vaccine sites. They trained at a slightly challenging pace, trying to maintain their heart rate of 120 to 140 beats per minute.

But researchers also asked some volunteers with the flu shot to ride for just 45 minutes to see if a smaller workout could be equally effective for boosting immunity.

Because antibody levels usually increase within a few weeks of vaccination, the researchers took blood at all again two and four weeks after vaccination. (People receiving the COVID-19 vaccine have meanwhile received a second vaccination, as the second Pfizer vaccination must be given three weeks after the first.)

45 minutes is not enough.

One month later, all levels of antibodies to the flu vaccine or COVID-19 rose significantly, as expected after the vaccine. But they were highest in men and women who practiced for 90 minutes after that.

This antibody bonus was small. “But it was statistically significant,” said Marian Kohut, a professor of kinesiology and a member of the Iowa Institute of Nanovaccine who oversaw the new study.

People who exercised also did not report any additional side effects after the injections. (They also experienced no minor side effects.)

Interestingly, 45 minutes of exercise in this study was not enough to amplify the antibodies. A shorter workout probably didn’t increase the levels of substances needed to boost immunity, including interferon alpha, Kohut said.

The researchers also repeated the experiment with the flu vaccine on mice that subsequently sprinted or remained motionless. The researchers tested their blood for interferon alpha levels and found that it increases with exercise. But when scientists chemically blocked the production of this substance, the animals benefited little from the antibodies from exercise, suggesting that exercise improves the response to the vaccine in part by increasing interferon alpha levels.

So the result is that “if you have the time and a safe place to train after vaccination,” moderate 90-minute sessions can increase your response to the vaccine, Kohut said, without adding side effects.

Can 60 minutes be enough?

The study was small, however, and did not measure antibody levels more than one month after vaccination. It also did not track whether people became infected with the flu or COVID-19, and did not consider the levels of various other cells that could affect the immune response, Kohut said.

An hour and a half is also a lot of exercise.

“It’s important to remember that it took quite a long effort, 90 minutes at a fast heart rate,” said Carmine Pariant, a professor at King’s College London who is the editor of the journal in which the study appeared. “The combination of three different vaccines in humans and in animal models is a unique strength of this study,” Payante said, adding that it is encouraging that an enhanced antibody response is present regardless of the vaccine recipient’s fitness levels.

Researchers hope to examine whether 60 minutes or different duration or intensity of exercise – or vice versa – after vaccinations may be helpful, and how long an antibody response may remain. They are already recruiting people for a longer-term study of the impact of exercise on COVID-19 vaccinations.

But for now, if you plan on getting vaccinated against the flu or COVID-19, you can ban an extra 90 minutes to sprint or bike sparks to explore the surrounding area. It just might provide extra immunity from your vaccine.

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