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New research finds that exercising after a vaccine could boost antibodies. Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • A recent study suggests that exercising after getting a vaccine can boost antibodies.
  • Iowa State University researchers found that light- to moderate-intensity exercise immediately after a flu or COVID-19 shot may increase protection against infection.
  • Study participants produced more antibodies over the next 4 weeks post-vaccination, and they did not report increased side effects from the vaccines.
  • These results indicate that exercise after vaccination could be a way to improve antibody response to a vaccine among people able to exercise for at least 45 minutes.

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A new study suggests that one 90-minute exercise session can boost immune response in people who have just taken a flu or COVID-19 vaccine.

In human and animal studies, a single episode of light or moderately vigorous activity after a flu or COVID-19 vaccine shot increased antibodies up to 4 weeks.

Additionally, exercise does not appear to increase adverse effects from a shot.

Marian Kohut, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University’s Navovaccine Institute, led a team of researchers to explore this effect. Postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students contributed to the work.

She and her co-authors published their findings in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

In an exclusive interview with Medical News Today, Dr. Kohut and postdoctoral researcher Tyanez Jones, Ph.D., shared:

“As far as we know, our findings are the first of their kind for evaluating exercise response on the COVID-19 vaccine. [They are] the first to show that light [to moderate] intensity, long-duration exercise enhances antibody response for the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Several studies have established that people who exercise before getting a vaccine have a higher antibody response.

One hypothesis for this is that exercise creates acute stress, which sparks an inflammatory response.

This response may stimulate the production of interferons and antibodies, proteins that fight foreign particles in microbes such as viruses.

Another possible reason is that exercise boosts blood and lymph flow, which promotes immune cell circulation.

The team studied how 90 minutes of cycling, outdoor walking, or jogging affected antibody response.

They based this time frame on earlier research suggesting that this amount of exercise increases interferon and antibody production.

They looked at people who were given one of three different vaccines: COVID-19, 2009 pandemic influenza H1N1, and seasonal influenza.

The control participants exercised within 30 minutes of receiving a flu shot or first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

They developed more antibodies compared with participants who were sedentary or did not change their daily activities after their shots. An experiment with mice and treadmills produced similar outcomes.

Digging deeper

Kohut said that much more research is necessary to determine why and how exercise enhances immune response. It is likely due to an interplay of metabolic, circulatory, and biochemical factors.

Additionally, the study’s co-authors are tracking antibody activity in the participants 6 months after vaccines. They have launched another study to see how exercise affects individuals who get booster shots.

MNT asked Dr. Kohut and Dr. Jones if 90 minutes of exercise is a reasonable goal for most people. They responded:

“[I]t is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine that adults accumulate at least 30–60 [minutes] of moderate exercise [per] day and 20–60 min of vigorous exercise.”

“We would say 90 minutes of exercise is not unrealistic nor unreasonable for people who exercise regularly and can safely complete exercise for that period of time. The benefit of increased antibody response following the COVID-19 vaccine or Influenza vaccine may outweigh the alternative.”

– Dr. Kohut and Dr. Jones

The researchers noted that setting aside 90 minutes for exercise post-vaccination may be a challenge for some individuals.

During the study, a shorter workout of 45 minutes after the COVID-19 vaccine did not produce an increase in antibodies. The research team may test the effectiveness of 60 minutes in a follow-up study.

Nevertheless, Dr. Kohut and her team believe that post-vaccine exercise could help people of varying fitness levels. Almost half of the study’s participants had excess weight or obesity. Additionally, the amount of distance covered in the 90-minute exercise slot varied from 4 to 10 miles for people walking or jogging, suggesting a wide range of fitness levels.

MNT also discussed the current study with Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He agreed that this research supports the positive potential of exercise on the immune system.

However, Dr. Adalja remarked: “Whether or not this produces a clinically meaningful difference in vaccine efficacy, or is practicable by most people, is a separate question.”

MNT wondered if this study’s findings could be applied to encourage individuals to get vaccinated for the flu or COVID-19. Dr. Kohut and Dr. Jones stated:

“The effort required to understand the complexity of vaccine hesitancy is great and imperative for increasing vaccination rates […] The knowledge that one may be able to improve immune response to the vaccine with exercise may provide some feeling of power or control over how one’s immune system responds to vaccination.”

However, they were careful not to suggest that the study could reduce vaccine hesitancy. They fear that such a claim “would minimize the severity of this issue.”

The researchers stressed:

“[E]xercise alone is not a sufficient substitute for immunization as exercise alone does not produce ‘immune memory’ to a virus. Exposure to viral components (as in vaccination or infection) is required to induce immune memory.”

– Dr. Kohut and Dr. Jones