Why older adults should exercise regularly if they want stronger immune systems

How staying physically fit later in life can benefit your immune system and health

Two men outdoors exercising together
(Image credit: Getty)

Immunity refers to your body's defense system and unfortunately, this does begin to decline with age. Colds, the flu, and of course harmful viruses like the coronavirus put people with weaker immunity at greater risk. But there are ways to avoid this, no matter your age, and science has revealed staying physically active is an effective way to boost your immune system.

Certain supplements such as the best vitamins for women over 50 or the best fish oil supplements can help to keep the aging body high on levels of healthy nutrients. Additionally, your overall lifestyle can majorly impact how strong, or not so strong, your immune system is.

Exercising more is an obvious lifestyle intervention that many doctors will prescribe to their patients for a multitude of health matters. It's also something that declines for older people. Yet science has found in a study that older adults who maintained high levels of physical activity for much of their adult lives had stronger performing immune systems than younger adults who didn't exercise regularly.

The researchers involved in this Aging Cell study acknowledged that aging is 'accompanied by remodeling of the immune system' and this leads to 'immune compromise' but they sought to assess how increased physical activity can help combat this for adults as they grow old.

Older woman putting on a helmet for a bike ride

(Image credit: Getty)

To reach their findings, they assessed the immune profiles of 125 adults aged between 55 to 79 years old who had kept up high levels of exercise (cyclists were used for this study) for most of their adult lives and for comparison did the same with 75 age-matched older adults and 55 younger adults (aged between 20-36). The latter two groups didn't regularly exercise.

The results revealed that 75-year old cyclists had lower immunosenescence (this refers to immune system deterioration associated with aging) than participants who were 55 years old and didn't exercise. 

One finding that was particularly interesting is that the older adults produced the same amount of immune T cells as a 20-year-old. T cells are a type of white blood cell that helps your immune system to fight off things like viruses or other forms of unwanted invasions.

If you're older and find exercising harder, there isn't any expectation for you to complete physical activities such as running and cycling to the same intensity as you once did. Overtraining can make you feel fatigued and put you at greater risk of injury. So instead aim to keep things steady, but the regularity of how much you exercise will be key. A steady-paced 30-minute pedal session on one of the best exercise bikes is a good way to get your heart rate up and increase your fitness abilities.

Alternatively, you might want something you can do at a slower pace that will still benefit your health. You can find yourself a pair of best shoes for walking and dedicate a part of your day to getting outdoors and moving or this 10-minute walking workout is a low-impact way to stay active at home.

Jessica Downey

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her career in journalism began in local news and she holds a Masters in journalism. Jessica has previously written for Runners World, penning news and features on fitness, sportswear and nutrition. 

When she isn't writing up news and features for Fit&Well covering topics ranging from muscle building, to yoga, to female health and so on, she will be outdoors somewhere, testing out the latest fitness equipment and accessories to help others find top products for their own fitness journeys. Her testing pairs up nicely with her love for running. She recently branched out to running 10Ks and is trying to improve her time before moving on to larger races. Jessica also enjoys building on her strength in the gym and is a believer in health and wellness beginning in the kitchen. She shares all of this on her running Instagram account @jessrunshere which she uses for accountability and for connecting with like-minded fitness lovers.