How Can Running Help Reduce Inflammation?

By: Sara Zipf

Inflammation is part of the body’s defense mechanism; it is the immune system’s means of recognizing and removing harmful stimuli so healing can take place. When inflammation becomes chronic, however, it can be far less helpful. Chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death across the globe, with nearly 60% of people losing their lives to inflammatory diseases like stroke, heart disease, respiratory disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. Of the many risk factors linked to inflammation, those that can be reduced by lifestyle choices include obesity, diet, and stress. And the good news is that running can help battle each of these triggers of inflammation.

Exercise Stimulates Inflammation-Fighting T Cells

A study conducted at the Harvard Medical School has found that the benefits of exercise are linked to the immune system. In particular, muscle inflammation caused by exertion mobilizes inflammation-busting T cells (also called Tregs). These cells improve the muscles’ ability to utilize energy as fuel, boosting athletes’ endurance. T cells not only protect the body against cancer and pathogens. It also enhances the body’s ability to reduce inflammation. In the study, researchers looked into how running on a treadmill affected mice. The results showed that those that ran on treadmills showed characteristic signs of inflammation. However, the results showed that they also had elevated Treg cells, and Tregs are known to reduce exercise-induced inflammation. Sedentary mice, meanwhile, did not experience any of these changes.

The Runner’s Diet

In order to excel at both long-distance running and sprinting, the consumption of a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet (comprising quality meat, fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and other healthy and whole foods) is vital for strength and endurance. This diet also battles inflammation, thanks to its high antioxidant quotient. Antioxidants scavenge free radicals, which are reactive molecules that cause inflammation. It is also recommended to avoid pro-inflammatory foods such as processed foods, refined carbohydrates such as white bread and rice, processed meats, processed snack foods, soy and corn oil, sugary beverages, and high-salt, high-sugar foods. Fiber plays an important role in the anti-inflammatory diet as it boosts gut health. Runners can obtain all the fiber they need by consuming a myriad of different fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains.

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Battle Inflammation?

Research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity has shown that just 20 minutes of a cardiovascular exercise like running improves the body’s anti-inflammatory response by activating the sympathetic nervous system. Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise on a treadmill reduced the number of stimulated immune cells producing the cytokine, TNF, by 5%. This reveals that this activity had an anti-inflammatory effect on cells. TNF can help cause the death of cancerous cells, but it also has pro-inflammatory properties. The authors highlighted the importance of their results for people who have reduced strength or mobility. These results showed that even a short running or cardiovascular workout session can play a key role in helping you keep inflammation at bay.

Complementary Exercises to Nip Inflammation in the Bud

In addition to running, you can also embrace additional activities such as yoga, walking, and cycling, and swimming can all help you in the fight against inflammation. Yoga, often undertaken as a means to improve one’s mobility, strength, and flexibility, has been found in numerous studies to reduce inflammation across multiple chronic conditions. The findings were consistent across various different yoga methods, including Hatha, Iyengar, Kundalini, and Ashtanga yoga. Studies have found that practicing yoga reduces inflammation markers, while also reducing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

The Importance of Resistance Training

Resistance training, which is joint-friendly, is also strongly linked to a lower risk of low-grade inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Long-term resistance training has the ability to decrease basal cytokine levels, which can help stave off chronic inflammation. All these exercises can be alternated with running, as they help boost important functions such as range of motion, which can reduce the likelihood of injuries.

Taking inflammation seriously is vital both for runners and members of the general population. Running has been found in various studies to lower inflammation and stress. In addition to your regular training sessions, aim to consume an anti-inflammatory diet and ensure you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily. Avoid inflammatory foods such as refined carbohydrates and sugary foods, and prioritize home-cooked meals made with healthy oils. Finally, embrace other exercise regimens, including resistance training, which is also a powerful antidote to inflammation.

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