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How exercise decreases inflammation

Following our ongoing theme of inflammation, today I want to discuss how good old exercise decreases inflammation. Yes- another fabulous reason to get out there and take a walk or hop on your bike!

To start this discussion of inflammation, we should first recognize there are basically 2 categories of inflammation. One is the kind that occurs at the site of an injury/ wound, and this type is beneficial because it helps recruit immune cells to the area to help heal damaged tissue. Although initially beneficial, it can become a problem if it is ongoing and doesn’t resolve.

The other kind of inflammation is systemic, meaning inflammatory chemicals circulate and cause low grade inflammation throughout the body. This can be triggered by a number of factors, most importantly poor food choices (think sugar, processed foods, trans fats, etc). Low grade systemic inflammation can lead to a host of health problems, particularly cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It’s important to keep systemic inflammation at a minimum to maintain optimal health, so that is the focus for this blog post.

Inflammation is a generic term for specific chemicals made by the body, classified as “cytokines”. There are hundreds of different cytokines and they can be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. They are chemical messengers which help direct immune cells to orchestrate either tissue destruction or rebuilding.

“TNF” is one of the pro-inflammatory cytokines which is known to be related to heart attacks, atherosclerosis and insulin resistance. Interestingly, TNF is made by fat cells, so that may offer a clue as to why having excess fat cells (obesity) increases the risk of developing those previously listed diseases.
An example of an important anti-inflammatory cytokine is IL6. It works against TNF to lower levels and decrease systemic inflammation.

We know that as a general rule, the more we exercise, the less excess fat we have. We also know that exercise lowers the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. No doubt, exercise is good for our health. But how and why?

Recent research has discovered that IL6, the anti-inflammatory cytokine, is made in the muscles. When we exercise, which requires contracting muscles repetitively, IL6 is secreted. IL6 suppresses pro-inflammatory TNF, so therefore exercise reduces systemic inflammation and lowers the risk of inflammatory diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Likewise, being sedentary lowers IL6 levels, raises TNF levels and results in more systemic inflammation.
We’ve always known that exercise is good for us, but now we understand more about the physiology of why. But when it comes to weight loss and being healthy, there simply is not a single magic bullet.

Many of us will benefit by eating a little less and exercising a little more. But how? I recommend that you find some form of exercise that is very enjoyable and convenient for you to do. This is so important that you might even consider relocating your residence if necessary, and if possible. We also recommend eating a healthy, whole food diet.

Reference: J Appl Physiol 98: 1154–1162, 2005

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