Does Cycling Strengthen Your Immune System?

When you think about it, our immune system does a remarkable job of defending us against disease-causing organisms. We take our immune systems so much for granted that we only really pay attention to it when a germ successfully invades, and we get ill. While the shelves are stocked with ‘miracle-pills’ that claim to boost our immune system, it turns out the solution may have been under our noses the whole time in the shape of two wheels and a saddle…

Discover more: What Are The Health Benefits Of Cycling? [Interactive]

Why our immune system is incredible

Your immune system is your body’s natural defence against infectious agents such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, and even tumour and cancer cells. It’s even involved in your body’s response to injury and trauma. It does this by producing white blood cells and other chemicals that attack and destroy the foreign substance that’s made it past your body’s defences.

Your immune system can recognise millions of different antigens and deploy the appropriate tactics to eradicate nearly all of them. When it’s working as it should be, this impressive defence system can protect against health problems ranging from the common cold to cancer. So, if you’re feeling in tip-top shape today, take a moment to give your immune system some appreciation – it truly is amazing.

It all goes downhill with age

The bad news is the immune system declines by about 2-3% every year starting in our 20s, hence why we’re more susceptible to infections as we get older. This is because the thymus – one of the organs of the immune system and is where immune cells called T cells mature – begins to shrink when we’re young adults. By the time we’re middle ages, it’s only 15% of its maximum size, and since T cells are responsible for attacking harmful antigens you can see why our immune system suffers!

Don’t worry though as there are some advantages to getting older! As we age, our immune systems develop more defences against antigens. The reason being that we acquire antibodies to the germs we’ve defeated in the past, which is why adults suffer from fewer colds than children.

Where does cycling come into all this?

We’ve heard the bad news, but the good news is there’s a simple way to combat the decline of our immune system, and it’s something a lot of us are doing already: cycling. A recent study conducted by Aging Cell followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some were now in their 80s, and found they had the immune system of 20-year-olds.

They discovered that the long-distance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, compared to a group of inactive adults who were producing very few. As a result, the researchers believe that doing a physical activity such as cycling, will help people respond better to vaccines, and will be better protected against nasty infections such as the flu.

Not only that but because the cyclists have the immune system of someone in their 20s, they will have added protection against things such as rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer.

The long-term benefits of cycling on our immune system are very clear, but will we see any evidence of these immune boosts in the short term? The answer is yes. In the short term, it’s thought physical activity may help flush out bacteria out of your lungs and airways, therefore reducing your chance of getting a cold or flu. It’s also thought that our rise in temperature when taking part in a vigorous exercise like cycling may prevent bacteria from growing. The rise in body temperature helps our bodies fight infection better – this is why we get a temperature when we’re ill.

One thing’s for sure, getting on your bike for a scenic morning ride is a lot more enjoyable than queuing in your pharmacy for some cold or flu treatment. There’s never been a better excuse to get some miles under your belt – prevention is better than a cure, right?

If you are planning on hitting the roads for a health boost and enjoying some fresh air, be sure to check out cycling insurance.