In-Depth: Exercise may boost antibody levels after vaccination

Study finds 90-minute workout increases immunity
Posted at 5:58 AM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 11:14:21-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - New research out of Iowa State University shows that people who exercise right after they get a COVID or flu vaccine can get a boost to their immunity.

The study, published in this month's issue of the medical journal "Brain, Behavior, and Immunity," found that people who did 90 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise immediately after getting a shot had higher levels of antibodies than people who were sedentary.

It also found that side effects were similar in both groups.

"At this point, we don't see any downsides," says Dr. Marian Kohut, a kinesiology professor at ISU and the lead author of the study.

"We know that exercise has some impact," adds Dr. Tyanez Jones, a Post-Doctoral researcher at the school. "The amount and in what ways that protection shows up, we don't know. But we want to encourage exercise after any vaccine."

About 100 people took part in the study. They received either the flu vaccine or their first dose of the Pfizer mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. Some participants were then asked to work out for up to 90 minutes, while others were told to go about their typical day or relax.

According to the study, "90 minutes of exercise consistently increased serum antibody to each vaccine."

According to the data, blood samples taken two and four weeks after the vaccine showed that people who got the flu vaccine and then exercised for 90 minutes had almost twice as high an antibody response as those who were sedentary.

Among the people who got the COVID vaccine, the antibody response was about 25% higher. While that's not as dramatic as the flu results, Dr. Kohut and Dr. Jones say it's significant.

"90 minutes seemed to be a point at which an immune marker called "interferon alpha" was enhanced," says Dr. Kohut. "We know that that has a role in the immune response to vaccines."

They also found that 90 minutes was a critical amount of time.

Another group of people in the study got the flu vaccine and only exercised for 45 minutes. Blood samples from those people showed lower antibody levels at the two and four-week marks than people who didn't exercise at all.

"Exercise has a mix of factors that can influence immune response - metabolic changes, biochemical changes, neuroendocrine changes. All of those are different, say, at 90 minutes than at 45 minutes," says Dr. Kohut.

The study didn't give a specific reason for the increased immune response. But the researchers believe a combination of biological factors played a part. They say increased blood flow and higher metabolism could be the key.

But more research is needed before exercise becomes a regular part of a vaccine regimen. Dr. Kohut and Dr. Jones hope to learn if the results are similar for Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, or after a booster shot.

They also want to see if the increase in antibodies lasts beyond four weeks.

Still, they say the study is a good starting point to give people a little more control over their health.

"I think as far as public health implications, we always want to promote exercise as an activity to improve immune function," says Dr. Jones.

"This is just some positive news," adds Dr. Kohut. "I think in the midst of all the negatives, we hear about something that maybe there's something you can do to help improve your immune response to vaccines, so it's nice to hear something positive."