How Exercise In Old Age Can Protect Our Immune System


Research suggest that doing lots of exercise in old age can protect the immune system. In fact they followed 125 cyclists in their 80’s and discovered that they had the immune system of 20 year olds.

The Immune System

The immune system declines about 2 to 3% a year after the age of 20 and may explain why older people are more susceptible to both infections and conditions like arthritis and cancer. T cells are present in the blood which help the immune system respond to infection. These are produced in the thymus, a gland in the chest. This reduces in size as you get older. The cyclists in the study were producing the same amount of T cells as people in their 20’s.


Exercise is therefore seen as crucial to producing these T cells and responding better to vaccines. It also doesn’t have to be long distance cycling which could produce these results.  It can be any exercise which gets you a little out of puff.

Another interesting benefit of exercise is that the research group also did not lose muscle mass and also did not have too high levels of body fat. Both issues have been seen as conditions in old age which can cause health complications. Another point made from the research group is that the cycling they do also gives them a social outlet which has been linked in recent years with preventing mental health issues in old age.

Muscle Loss In Old Age

Research has also suggested why the elderly suffer from loss of muscle in old age. In tests on 168 men, looking specifically at muscles in the legs, it was found that the nerves which control the legs decreased by about 30% by the age of 75. This is what is being seen as behind the muscle loss. This muscle loss can really affect everyday life from walking around to even getting upstairs.

The science behind it is that muscles need to receive the right signal from the nervous system to tell them to contract to produce the right movement.

But, as we have already written, older people who keep fit may avoid the worse of this. Large, healthy muscles seem to have a form of protection, surviving nerves can send out new branches to rescue muscles and stop them reducing to the degree that they adversely affect movement.

Exercise In The Elderly

The aim is to try and get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week. Ideas of moderate activity include walking fast, water aerobics, riding a bike, playing tennis even pushing a lawnmower. In addition to the 150 minutes try some gardening, carry some heavy loads or try some weight training. The key here is to try and avoid sitting down for long periods of time.

Getting Started

Always check with your doctor first as they will be able to advise you on any health issues that you may have. After that check out your local gym to see what activities they have that may suit you. Many gyms now run exercise classes specifically for older people getting back into fitness.

Local groups may also be able to help you, the library is often a good place to look if for example dancing is your thing and you want to exercise in this way. You may also find a running club that may be more your thing.

Organisations like Age UK can also advise on how to get fit and may be able to help put you in touch with local groups. But a great way to start is simply walking. Walking alone can help with weight loss, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and help your bones. Brisk walking is what you should be aiming for, which is when you walk at a pace that puts you a little out of breath but you can still carry on a conversation. Whatever you do the key here is to get active and help your immune system!


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