Exercise to Help Your Immune System vs. Colds and Flu

You already know that regular exercise strengthens your muscles, including your heart, and can help you stick to a healthy weight. Maybe you’ve felt a mood boost after a workout when you were feeling down.

But did you know it can help your immune system too?

It doesn’t matter if you’re fit now, or if it’s been a while. There’s never a better time than right now. So, let’s get started!

How Exercise Helps

Regular exercise like jogging, walking, or swimming seems to help your body fight illness caused by viruses and bacteria.

No need to go to extremes. Some studies suggest that really hard exercise over several days could dim your immune system for a day or so. But that’s more likely with elite athletes training for competition. For the rest of us, the perks of exercise for your immune system far outweigh the risk.

Make Your Plan

Don’t overthink it. But do answer a few key questions first.

Are you ready?

If you’re over age 50 or have a health condition, check with your doctor if you haven’t been active in a while. Ask what types of activities are good for you to start with and what you should avoid.

What do you want to try?

Think of activities that raise your heart rate or work as strength training. Variety helps keep it interesting.

How will you track your workouts?

This helps you meet your goals and helps motivate you to exercise more. Use an app, jot down notes, or mark it on your calendar.

Gather what you need.

It may be nothing more than the running or walking shoes you already have (as long as they’re not worn out), plus your own body weight for strength training moves like pushups and squats.

Want to use that old bike in the garage? That should work. Just get it checked at a bike shop to make sure it’s still safe to ride.

For strength training, simple, inexpensive props like resistance bands, dumbbells, and inflatable balls can help. Or use soup cans and sealed water bottles.

Set a can-do, but kind, mindset.

Give yourself permission to start slowly and build up. Remember, any exercise is better than none at all. And there are ways to be active no matter what abilities you have, your size or age, or resources that are available.

When you’re ready to do more, you’ll reap even more health benefits -- but take your time to work your way up safely.

What You’ll Do


These are “aerobic” activities, which raise your heart rate. You can pick how hard it is.

If you want to stick to moderate activity, aim for 150 minutes of these activities each week. That could be 30 minutes a day, five times a week, for example. If you’re not active now, start with just a few minutes a day and add more time.

If you’re only going to do vigorous activities, you can cut the time in half, down to 75 minutes a week of these activities.

It’s also fine to combine moderate and vigorous exercise. You could make some days harder or easier, or do both in a workout.

Strength training:

These moves challenge your muscles with resistance. You might use hand weights, your own body weight, or resistance bands.

Exercises that count as muscle-strengthening include:

  • Climbing (rope, tree, gym climbing wall)
  • Resistance band training
  • Weight lifting
  • Pushups, pullups, situps, and other body-weight exercises
  • Heavy gardening like digging, carrying, and shoveling
  • Some more strenuous types of yoga or Pilates

Aim to work the major muscle groups in the body -- back, chest, arms, legs, glutes, and abs -- at least twice a week.

To get the most benefit, try to push your muscles to fatigue -- that means until it’s hard to repeat the movement while maintaining good form. There are three ways to do this:

  • Raise the weight or resistance of an exercise so that you run out of steam sooner, typically eight to 15 repetitions, or “reps.”
  • Raise the number of reps to the point where you start to get tired.
  • Raise the number of sets that you do. (A set is a group of reps that you do without rest.)

Warm up first.

If you don’t, you’re more likely to get injured. Simple things, like brisk walking or jumping jacks, will do. Then start with a low weight and work your way up slowly. Don’t add weight too quickly or overdo it. You don’t want to get injured.

Check your form.

You want to do the moves correctly to help prevent injury and get the most benefit. Consult a certified personal trainer if you’re unsure about the best way to do these moves.

Allow for recovery.

This is actually when your muscles get stronger, repairing the strain from strength training. It’s best to give each muscle group 48 hours to rest and recover before you work them again.

Stay on Track

Plans are one thing. Real life is another. Find ways to change things up when you need to.

Progress, not perfection.

A 10-minute walk at lunch is great if that’s all you can fit in. Do that every day and you’re almost halfway to your weekly goal for aerobic exercise. Add a few pushups or situps in the morning and you’ve got yourself an exercise program.

Sneak it in if you have to.

Where do you have to go today? Maybe you could walk or ride your bike to the post office or coffee shop. Or take part of an online yoga class in your living room if you can’t take the whole class. Or do one set of strength exercises, and finish the rest later.

Start with a realistic goal.

If 20 minutes every day leaves you exhausted and sore, try 10 minutes every other day. Add a couple of minutes each week as your fitness improves. Once you hit your time goal, start to add more days. Want more? Add speed or find a route with more hills.

Keep yourself interested.

Vary your routes, exercises, and scenery. It’s good for your mood and motivation. And it helps strengthen your muscles and joints in fresh ways and gives them time to recover.

Make it social and fun.

Join a kickball league, take the dog to the park, or meet a friend for a hike. You’re less likely to skip if other people are counting on you. It adds some accountability, which you can also do by posting your workouts on your social media.

Do it for YOU.

The most important thing about your exercise plan is that it works for your personality, your lifestyle, your age and abilities, and your time constraints. You want something you can commit to for the long run, while changing up the details of what you do to stay interested and challenged.