Being Well

Does Exercise Increase White Blood Cells? And Other Answers About Immunity and Exercise

Exercise affects your white blood cells and may play a role in cancer prevention.

You already know that exercise is good for you, and you’ve probably heard that exercise reduces your risk of many types of cancer. What’s being explored further is exactly why and how exercise can help prevent cancer. Some questions revolve around your immune system and white blood cell production. Does exercise increase white blood cells? And is that a good thing? The relationship between exercise and cancer is complex, but the verdict is the same — keep moving and you stay healthy.

Exercise and Cancer Prevention

Being physically active regularly, even with just moderate-intensity exercise like speed walking, has protective benefits. Recent research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that exercise lowers your risk of 13 types of cancer: colon, breast, endometrial, esophageal, liver, stomach, kidney, head and neck, rectal, bladder, lung, myeloid leukemia and multiple myeloma. That’s a pretty long list and one that will likely grow as research continues.

Exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight and lowers insulin and estrogen levels; high levels can drive some types of cancer. Exercise also reduces inflammation and stimulates your immune system.

The American Cancer Society recommended adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can be walking, hiking, biking, swimming or other activities you enjoy and can work into your schedule.

Does Exercise Increase White Blood Cells?

The immune system is complex and how your actions affect it is still being explored. But there may be some ways in which exercise can affect your immune system, which may lower your cancer risk over time. White blood cells are part of your immune system and work together to fight off disease. When you get sick, your white blood cells increase as they hunt down invaders and attack them. Your body’s white blood cell count also increases during exercise and returns to normal shortly after.

So what does this have to do with cancer? Exercise has beneficial effects on your immune system. According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s possible that when you exercise, the white blood cell increase could send these cells on a mission, looking for illnesses and finding them earlier, but that connection hasn’t been fully proven. A study in PLOS One also suggested that regular aerobic exercise lowers your total white blood cell count, which can be good for your overall health. Having a high white blood cell count normally can mean that you have chronic inflammation, an illness, allergies or stress.

Exercise and Your Immune System

Another emerging question explored in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity is whether exercise can reduce age-related decline in the immune system. As you age, your immune system naturally begins to weaken. Your risk of cancer also increases with age. People who exercise regularly tend to have better immune function overall than people who are sedentary. Further research may explore whether prolonged immune health can stave off cancer as you age.

Although all the ways in which exercise benefits your body and reduces cancer risk aren’t fully known, it’s clear that exercise works. Reaping the benefits can be as simple as walking every day during lunch or bike riding after work. Your doctor can also provide further guidance on how to get started and offer advice specific to your health situation.

Talk to your doctor to learn how to develop an exercise routine tailored to your health situation.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney