The purpose of the current review is to synthesize the available evidence from prospective clinical trials that are relevant to the clinical question: “What, if any, are the effects of regular aerobic and/or resistance exercise on the immune system in healthy older adults?”
Electronic databases were searched, using terms pertaining to immunology, exercise, and aging. Using the Ovid interface, the following databases were explored: Allied and Complimentary Medicine (AMED) (1985 to 2008), Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) (1982 to 2008), all EBM Reviews (Cochrane DSR, ACP Journal Club, DARE, CCTR, CMR, HTA, and NHSEED), EMBASE (1980 to 2008), and MEDLINE (1950 to 2008). The MEDLINE database was searched a second time through the PubMed interface.
Prospective controlled clinical trials were selected for review if they investigated the effects of an exercise intervention (minimum 4 weeks in duration) on an immune outcome measure in an older but otherwise healthy population. A total of 19 articles representing 17 trials were identified.
Quality assessment of the relevant articles was performed using the Jadad et al1 criteria. Data extraction was performed using a standardized instrument. Data regarding the participants, interventions, and laboratory and clinical immunologic outcomes were synthesized.
Available data provide no clear evidence of acute or chronic effects of exercise on lymphocyte or natural killer (NK) cell numbers or phenotype (ie, surface markers)/activity, with 2 exceptions: (1) strength or endurance exercise may cause an acute transient elevation in circulating CD8+ T cells, and (2) regular aerobic exercise appears to enhance immunologic memory in the context of vaccination. The effects of strength training on NK cell activity are unclear. Furthermore, regular aerobic exercise appears to be associated with a reduction in chronic inflammation. Finally, no prospective controlled trials have clearly documented clinical immunologic benefits of regular exercise, which may well relate to underpowering of these studies.
Overall, in healthy older adults, regular, particularly aerobic, exercise appears to be a friend of the immune system, helping to offset diminished adaptive responses and chronic inflammation. The possibility exists that particularly strenuous exercise may cause acute immunologic changes, such as diminished NK cell activity, which could predispose to infection in certain individuals. However, given the possible benefits of regular exercise on the immune system and the many definite benefits on other systems, the evidence presented here should not dissuade practitioners from suggesting regular exercise to otherwise healthy older adults.