Chronic inflammation is nasty stuff: It’s considered a contributing factor to diseases from arthritis to cancer, as well as long-term health conditions like obesity. Regular exercise has been shown to curb inflammation in the body, but it hasn’t always been clear exactly how it helps—or how much activity you need to reap the benefits.
Now, new research suggests that your workouts don’t have to be that long, or that hard, to produce real results: Just 20 minutes of brisk walking produced an anti-inflammatory response in immune cells of study participants, supporting the idea that every workout truly does count.
"Each time we exercise, it seems that we are doing something good for our body at the cellular level," says senior author Suzi Hong, PhD, associate director of the Integrative Health and Mind-Body Biomarker Lab at the University of California San Diego.
The study involved 47 adults, who were asked to walk on a treadmill at a pace that felt moderately hard to them. (Think faster breathing and light sweating.) They provided blood samples before and immediately after the exercise, so researchers could measure proteins associated with whole-body inflammation.
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The “after” samples showed about a 5% decrease in a protein called TNF, which is produced by immune cells. Hong says this is a “clear and significant sign that the immune cells are suppressing the inflammatory markers,” which may provide health benefits both in the short term and, when exercise is repeated regularly, the long term as well.
The research also shed light on how exactly this process happens, says Hong. It seems that stress hormones released during moderate exercise may trigger receptors in the body’s immune cells. The results were published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
"The message here is that exercise doesn't have to be really intense to have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Hong. That’s especially important for people who might be intimidated by the idea of working out, or frustrated by a lack of noticeable results, she adds—including those who are overweight or have a chronic inflammatory disease. “Even before you see weight coming off, there's evidence that you're fighting inflammatory activation in your body,” she says.
The study did not compare treadmill walking to different types (or different intensities) of exercise, so it’s uncertain whether harder or easier workouts would produce similar results.
It’s also not entirely clear how much these cellular changes really affect healthy people without elevated inflammation. But it’s likely that everyone can benefit, says Hong, since exercise-triggered immune responses can make the body more efficient at regulating inflammation in the long run.
Hong cautions that people with chronic illnesses should always talk with their doctors before starting a new exercise plan, and shouldn’t expect exercise alone to cure their problems. But she hopes her research will provide this group with new motivation to add moderate physical activity to their routine.
“Everyone knows that exercise is good for them,” says Hong. “But maybe making it a little more specific—saying that each time you exercise can have a real anti-inflammatory benefit—will help people accept it a little more clearly.”