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Exercise after vaccination improves antibody levels

Vaccination is an effective public health measure, and is used all over the world to prevent people from succumbing to various different pathogens, yet vaccine efficacy varies across different populations. Since it is important that vaccines are as effective as possible in producing the relevant antibody responses, scientists are interested in investigating any factors that may improve vaccine efficacy. 

In a recent study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, researchers from Iowa State University show that even a short stint of moderate physical exercise, taken just after being vaccinated, can improve the development of antibodies and boost immunity. 

Antibodies are protein molecules produced by the white blood cells of the body’s immune system. They function in a “search and destroy” capacity to identify and eradicate pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, that have entered a person’s body. Vaccines help the immune system learn how to identify the presence of foreign invading organisms, and also to defend the body by producing a ready army of antibodies. 

The researchers measured the levels of antibodies present in people who had cycled on a stationary bike or gone for a brisk walk, for 90 minutes, immediately after receiving a vaccination. Three different vaccines were used in the study, namely those against the 2009 pandemic influenza (H1N1), against seasonal influenza, and against COVID-19.

The results showed that participants who had exercised immediately after being vaccinated had more antibodies in their blood four weeks later than those who had remained sitting or who had carried on with their daily routines. In addition, exercising did not increase the side effects of vaccination. This result was consistent for all three different vaccines. 

“Our preliminary results are the first to demonstrate a specific amount of [exercise] time can enhance the body’s antibody response to the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine and two vaccines for influenza,” said study lead author Professor Marian Kohut.

The researchers said the study’s findings could directly benefit people with a range of fitness levels. Nearly half of the participants in the experiment had a BMI in the overweight or obese category. During 90 minutes of exercise, they focused on maintaining a pace that kept their heart rate around 120–140 beats per minute, rather than focusing on distance traveled.

Interestingly, the researchers also tested whether a 45-minute exercise session would also result in increased numbers of antibodies. They found that the shorter session of physical exercise did not have the same effect. They did not test whether 60 minutes of exercise would boost immunity in the same way, but suggest that this could be an area of further study in the future. 

Although the reason that exercise boosts the immune system is not yet clear, Kohut explains that several factors could be involved. Doing physical exercise increases blood and lymph flow, which helps circulate immune cells and bring them into contact with foreign pathogens in the body. This would lead to an immune response that would increase the number of circulating antibodies. 

The scientists also conducted similar experiments on mouse models that were vaccinated with influenza A vaccine and then allowed to run on a treadmill. Those that had a 90-minute post-vaccination exercise session also had higher levels of antibodies in their blood. Data from the mouse experiments also suggested a type of protein (interfeon alpha) produced during exercise helps generate virus-specific antibodies and T-cells (a type of white blood cell).

“But a lot more research is needed to answer the why and how. There are so many changes that take place when we exercise – metabolic, biochemical, neuroendocrine, circulatory. So, there’s probably a combination of factors that contribute to the antibody response we found in our study,” said Professor Kohut.

The researchers are continuing to track the antibody response in the participants six months post-immunization and have launched another study that focuses on the effects of exercise on people who receive booster shots.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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