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Logo of brjsmedBritish Journal of Sports MedicineVisit this articleSubmit a manuscriptReceive email alertsContact usBMJ
Br J Sports Med. 2000 August; 34(4): 246–251.
PMCID: PMC1724218

Effects of exercise on lymphocytes and cytokines


Objectives—To review results on exercise induced changes in the immune system following strenuous and moderate exercise.

Methods—A literature search over the past 15 years was conducted using Medline and selected papers.

Results—After intense long term exercise, the immune system is characterised by concomitant impairment of the cellular immune system and increased inflammation. Thus low concentrations of lymphocytes, suppressed natural immunity, suppressed lymphocyte proliferation, and suppressed levels of secretory IgA in saliva are found simultaneously with high levels of circulating proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. The underlying mechanisms are multifactorial and include neuroendocrinological and metabolic factors. The clinical consequences of the exercise induced immune changes have not formally been identified, but the exercise effect on lymphocyte dynamics and immune function may be linked to the exercise effects on resistance to infections and malignancy and the cytokine response may be linked to muscle damage or muscle cell growth.

Conclusions—Moderate exercise across the life span seems to increase resistance to upper respiratory tract infections, whereas repeated strenuous exercise suppresses immune function. It is premature to offer advice on nutrition to athletes in order to alter the exercise induced immunosuppression found after exercise.

Key Words: exercise; cytokine; lymphocytes; immunosuppression; nutrition

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