For seven years, Rachael Eckles assumed it was just bad food allergies causing the stomach issues she experienced after eating a spinach salad or too many raw carrots. It wasn’t until a few years later that she underwent a colonoscopy, after mentioning her symptoms to her doctor. The results were concerning. They revealed that her large intestine was dotted with small lesions that looked like canker sores.
Eckles was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease in which in the body’s immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s made Eckles’ stomach sensitive to vegetable fiber (hence, the post-salad pain). The disease can also cause belly pain, diarrhea, loss of appetite, fever and weight loss. Although Eckles, a 35-year-old lawyer from Manhattan, was relieved to finally learn why she’d been sick, she balked at the treatment. A specialist prescribed “heavy-duty” drugs called immunomodulators to control inflammation.
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“Of all the things you can do to lower your risk of getting sick, exercise is the most powerful.”
In search of a more holistic approach, Eckles decided to try another doctor’s recommendation of milder medication, regular exercise and a diet that limited fiber, dairy, gluten and sugar. Prior to her diagnosis, Eckles had been doing yoga a few times a week. But in an attempt to control her disease, she decided to start lifting weights four times per week to gain strength, and upped her yoga classes to four to fives times a week as well. Though not a big fan of cardio, she also decided to try to squeeze in at least 10 minutes a day — and make time for 15 minutes of daily meditation, too.
Ultimately, at least some part of her new regimen — whether medication, diet or exercise — seemed to pay off. Eight months after changing up her routine, the lining of Eckles’ colon had healed, and she was in remission from Crohn’s disease. “I really believe that exercise was a crucial part of my recovery,” says Eckles, who also works as a holistic health coach and recently founded Digestive Wellness, an online magazine for people with digestive diseases. “When I don’t exercise, I don’t feel as well. It helps everything, including my circulation, mood, sleep, digestion and immune function.”
What Exercise Can Do for Your Health
Realistically, Eckles admits it’s impossible to isolate exercise as the reason she got better. She still takes an anti-inflammatory medication and follows a strict diet. But she’s one of an increasing number of voices who believe that exercise doesn’t just make you look and feel better — it has a powerful effect on your immune system, too.
“Exercise helps you be more resistant to the impact [of] stress…You’re more bulletproof.”
“Of all the things you can do to lower your risk of getting sick, exercise is the most powerful,” explains David Nieman, doctor of public health and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University in Kannapolis, North Carolina. “Many studies show that just getting 30 to 60 minutes of exercise during most days of the week cuts the sickness rate 40 to 50 percent. Or if you get sick, it’s for a shorter time.” Nieman’s own research of more than 1,000 adults found that subjects who worked out at least five days a week experienced a 43 percent reduced risk of upper respiratory tract infection compared to mostly sedentary people.
In fact, Nieman says the “fitness effect” is so strong that physical activities can even help disease-fighting immune cells surge throughout the body during a workout. “Some of these cells are always circulating, but many are sequestered in the thymus, lungs, lymph nodes, bone marrow and spleen,” explains Neiman. “When you start exercising, especially running, [they’re] like the Marine Corps coming out of foxholes.” Nieman says immune cells emerge from your peripheral tissues, and can circulate throughout the body for up to three hours after a workout.
Can You Sweat Away Immune-Wrecking Stress?
If you’ve ever come down with a bad cold after a crushing week at work, you don’t need a scientist to tell you that stress hurts your immunity. Yet exercise can also help your ability to handle emotional and physical stress, explains Monika Fleshner, PhD, professor in the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado.
In one experiment, Fleshner found that running on a wheel helped rats respond better to acute stress (in the form of electric shocks). How? Physical activity appeared to help regulate the parts of the brain involved in emotional responding and reduce inflammation. Responsible for numerous ill health effects, inflammation has been linked to many chronic diseases in humans, such as cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease and dementia.
“What’s so cool is that exercise helps you be more resistant to the impact [of] stress,” says Fleshner. “You can endure it longer and not fall apart. You’re more bulletproof.”
The Workout Sweet Spot
While exercising has numerous immune benefits, overexercising could have the opposite effect. Go too big, and you could go home — to bed, says Frank Booth, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri. “If you run 100 miles a week or do a marathon a month, you’ll suppress your immune system,” he says. “But if you’re a couch potato, you’ll also lower your immunity. You have to aim for somewhere in the middle.”
Pushing yourself to train for a new marathon PR could actually end up setting you back, in terms of health. Several epidemiological reports show that athletes are at increased risk of head colds during heavy training and the two weeks following an endurance race event. If you’re in training, you should focus on minimizing other life stressors, such as lack of sleep, emotional triggers or poor diet. Eating well will help, too. Nieman advises aiming for three servings of fruit a day, explaining that fruits’ polyphenols have anti-viral properties.
For Eckles, the knowledge that she could help manage her disease through diet and exercise helped her feel more confident — and reassured her that she could play a part in controlling her own health. “I could have made the decision to let the disease take over my life,” she says. “Instead, I was able to take an active role in my healing.”