This one thing could make your COVID vaccine more effective
Here’s what doctors are saying about the results of a new vaccine-related study.
Exercising has a wide range of health benefits beyond staying in shape, one of the main ones being immunity boosting. And as it turned out, according to the new studyregular exercise could increase the benefits of your COVID-19 vaccine.
Researchers surveyed 200,000 men and women in South Africa, collecting data on vaccinations, COVID outcomes and exercise routines. They found that vaccination against COVID is effective in protecting against serious infection. However, it was most effective in those who exercised frequently.
How exercise can help the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine
As the study showed, those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against COVID (Ad26.COV2.S) and exercised at a high level were almost 3 times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID than people who were vaccinated but had only low levels of exercise, Dr. William Liinternationally recognized physician, researcher, president/founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation and author Eat to beat disease, he explains. This study was unique in that it looked at a severe endpoint of hospitalization and also documented exercise with the help of wearable devices.
Researchers have known for some time that exercise stimulates the immune system and can boost the immune response to a vaccine by producing more protective antibodies in the blood. Exercise also activates immune T-cells that destroy viruses, and also improves the layer of immune defense that lines the nasal passages where respiratory viruses enter the body, according to Dr. Li.
Regular exercise also promotes better sleep at night, and sleep quality is also important for the immune response.
Additional point: Those who make time to exercise, especially those who exercise at a high intensity, are more likely to take better care of their health, including making healthier diet and lifestyle choices. Dietary choices, especially eating more whole plant foods such as blueberries, nuts and seafood rich in omega-3s, have been shown to boost immunity, Dr. Li adds.
“We have limited data on the effect of exercise on the effectiveness of the COVID vaccine,” he says dr. F. Perry Wilson, MD, from Yale Medicine. “But we do know that exercise itself appears to be quite protective against poor outcomes of COVID. People who exercise frequently are significantly less likely to be hospitalized for COVID or die from complications of COVID.”
The BMJ study gives us the best data yet to suggest that exercise has a direct effect on the immune response to vaccination, showing that vaccine effectiveness is greater among those who exercise more.
This is a really subtle but important point. It wouldn’t be surprising if people with a sedentary lifestyle had worse COVID outcomes — which has been shown in multiple previous studies. But the vaccine should still work in that group, Dr. Wilson adds. And indeed it did, reducing the hospitalization rate by about 60%. But the amazing thing is that it works better in the more active group—a group that is generally less likely to be hospitalized.
Exercise is a complex physiological state – it speeds up the heartbeat, widens certain blood vessels (and narrows others) and increases the level of certain hormones (and decreases others), so the ways in which exercise can affect the immune system are numerous, Dr. Wilson explains. But it’s no surprise that the overall effect is good: exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body, and it’s probably pretty good for your immune system, too.
“There are probably many reasons why exercise can make the COVID vaccination more effective,” he says Justen Elpay, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group. “According to the study, ‘physical activity has been shown to have effects at many levels, including the organelle level, allowing individuals to have a ‘combination of improved antibody levels, improved T cell immune surveillance and psychosocial factors. This suggests that exercise encourages your body to prepare a stronger immune system. response, thus making vaccination more effective,”
The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle
The study also found that the vaccinated group who exercised at least 1 hour each week were 1.4 times less likely to be hospitalized compared to the sedentary and vaccinated participants. This indicates that the vaccines were about 12 percent more effective in those who exercised compared to those who did not.
“A sedentary lifestyle is associated with an overall weaker health defense, including immunity. This is one of the explanations for the lower effectiveness of vaccination in preventing hospitalization,” says Dr. Li. “Sedentary people also often make poorer diet choices, which can affect the gut microbiome and thus increase inflammation and reduce the immune response. Even a little exercise can prevent these effects.”
Even short bouts of exercise can change the chemicals in your blood—hormones, cytokines and chemokines—and change your sugar metabolism, among many other effects, according to Dr. Wilson. It’s still not clear how these attacks affect the immune system, but it appears that something happens to trigger the production of immune molecules like antibodies when you exercise.
“One of the most important effects of exercise is improving the way our body heals and copes with injury and disease,” says Dr. Elbayer. “Why vaccines might be more effective in those who exercise is probably multifactorial. A stronger immune response to vaccines plays a big role.”
The amount of exercise you need per week to reap the benefits
A BMJ study found that there is a dose-response to the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in preventing hospitalization. The people who benefited the most exercised at least 150 minutes a week at a level that raised their heart rate to between 70-80% of their maximum, explains Dr. Li.
But even moderate exercise, defined as 60 to 149 minutes per week, was beneficial in reducing the risk of hospitalization.
The bottom line: When it came to the benefit of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine in this study, some exercise was better than no exercise, and the more people exercised, the more protection they got. This shows that there are steps people can take to improve the effectiveness of other vaccines as well, Dr. Li adds.
“The BMJ study suggests that there is a dose-response relationship here. This means that even minimal exercise can lead to some benefit, and more exercise leads to greater benefit, says Dr. Wilson. “My advice from reading this study is what I tell my patients all the time – do whatever exercise you can, and when you can do it comfortably, try to do a little more.”