Moderate Exercise After COVID-19, Flu Shots Boosts Antibodies

Mild- to moderate-intensity exercise immediately after receiving a COVID-19 or influenza vaccine can help rev up the immune system. And it doesn’t appear to increase side effects. Find out how researchers determined that and what level of activity is recommended.

AMES, IA – Pharmacists might want to recommend a visit to the gym or a walking trial after administering a COVID-19 or influenza vaccine.

Why? Researchers at Iowa State University found that 90 minutes of mild- to moderate-intensity exercise directly after getting those vaccines appears to offer an extra immune boost.

The study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity journal suggests that participants who cycled on a stationary bike or took a brisk walk for an hour and a half after getting their shots produced more antibodies in the ensuing four weeks compared to participants who sat or continued with their daily routine post-immunization. An experiment with mice and treadmills indicated similar findings.

"Our preliminary results are the first to demonstrate a specific amount of time can enhance the body's antibody response to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and two vaccines for influenza," explained lead author Marian Kohut, PhD, of Iowa’s Department of Kinesiology.

Essentially, researchers determined that exercise increases antibody response to the two vaccines but does not increase side effects. The study team posits interferon-α mighty contribute to the exercise-induced enhancement of vaccine response.

“Vaccination is an effective public health measure, yet vaccine efficacy varies across different populations,” the authors point out. “Adjuvants improve vaccine efficacy but often increase reactogenicity. An unconventional behavioral “adjuvant” is physical exercise at the time of vaccination.”

To test that theory, researchers examined the effect of 90-minute light- to moderate-intensity cycle ergometer or outdoor walk/jog aerobic exercise performed once after immunization on serum antibody response to three different vaccines -- 2009 pandemic influenza H1N1, seasonal influenza, and COVID-19.

The exercise intervention occurred after influenza vaccination or after the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, a mouse model of influenza A immunization was used to examine the effect of exercise on antibody response and the role of IFNα as a potential mechanism by treating mice with anti-IFNα antibodies.

The authors advise that their results show that “90 minutes of exercise consistently increased serum antibody to each vaccine four weeks post-immunization, and IFNα may partially contribute to the exercise-related benefit.”

Researchers add, “These findings suggest that adults who exercise regularly may increase antibody response to influenza or COVID-19 vaccine by performing a single session of light- to moderate-intensity exercise post-immunization.”

They further suggest that the study's findings could be beneficial to recipients with a range of fitness levels. Nearly half of the participants in the experiment had a BMI in the overweight or obese category. During 90 minutes of exercise, the study subjects focused on maintaining a pace that kept their heart rate around 120-140 beats per minute rather than distance.

The study team also assessed whether participants could get the same increase in antibodies with just 45-minutes of exercising but found the shorter workout did not result in a bump.

"But a lot more research is needed to answer the why and how. There are so many changes that take place when we exercise -- metabolic, biochemical, neuroendocrine, circulatory. So, there's probably a combination of factors that contribute to the antibody response we found in our study," Kohut said.

Go Back