One More Reason for a Healthy Lifestyle: Exercise might increase vaccines' effectiveness
The COVID-19 vaccine holds great promise for restoring normal life. However, several factors can affect the vaccines’ efficacy, some of which are under our control.
In my research group, led by Prof. Alejandro Lucia at Universidad Europea de Madrid (Spain), we aim to study the benefits of an optimal lifestyle on health with a particular focus on the potential role of exercise as a preventive or therapeutic option against different diseases. In the present blog, I will focus on how regular physical activity has proven to exert numerous benefits on immune health, which could have important implications for COVID-19. Should it be considered an adjuvant to vaccination programs?
The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has had — and continues to have — a dramatic impact on society. Promising to restore life back to as we knew it, there are huge expectations on how effective they are. Important research suggests that the vaccines’ efficacy may not only depend on the make-up of the vaccines themselves but also on other, controllable factors.
Regular exercise and vaccines’ efficacy
Although there is yet no specific evidence for the role of lifestyle on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, evidence from previous vaccination programs (such as those against the flu) suggests that a healthy lifestyle — particularly being physically active — might help increase the vaccines’ efficacy. For instance, a recent study observed that young elite athletes had a better immune response after being vaccinated against the flu (higher increase in T-cells and neutralizing antibodies, the two main characters in charge of defending the organism against virus infections) than the general population.
These benefits have also been observed in people who try to stay physically active. Indeed, older adults who regularly perform high levels of physical activity (i.e., walking around ~18,500 steps per day, or doing 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise three times per week) present a better immunological response after being vaccinated against the flu compared to their peers who are less active. These results are of paramount importance, particularly given that older adults are among the most susceptible to becoming infected and are at a greater risk of poor outcomes once infected.
How about exercising directly before getting the vaccine?
Although the above-mentioned findings are highly relevant, even more shocking are the findings that suggest a single bout of exercise before getting the jab might also improve the vaccines’ efficacy.
Some decades ago, researchers observed that, in animals, stressful situations before vaccination seemed to maximise immune responses. Later studies confirmed a similar trend in humans: stress-induced through exercise of relatively high intensity (e.g., sixteen minutes of high-intensity cycling or doing arm rises with a heavyweight) before getting vaccinated maximised immune responses. A further study demonstrated that acute exercise reduced the vaccines associated side effects.
It must be noted, nonetheless, that evidence in this regard is still preliminary and no research has been specifically conducted with COVID-19 vaccines.
Ensuring vaccination efficacy is critical, particularly for those most vulnerable such as older adults or adults with obesity. Not only regular physical exercise but also a single exercise bout of relatively high intensity before getting vaccinated might help maximise immune responses to vaccines having implications both for the individual receiving the vaccine and for society overall.
In conclusion, a healthy lifestyle — including regular physical activity, but also a healthy diet and optimal sleep patterns, among other factors — should be considered a cornerstone in the armamentarium against COVID-19.