Chronic inflammation is kryptonite for your health. It's been linked to a host of conditions like type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. But get this: The right types of exercise reduce inflammation.
Still, cardio isn't the only anti-inflammatory exercise around. Any moderate-intensity exercise (that you like!) will do the trick, according to study author Suzi Hong, PhD, associate professor of family medicine, public health and psychiatry at the University of California San Diego. But the important part is finding a workout you look forward to.
"If you find yourself dreading the activity, then it becomes a source of stress," she says. And that's counterproductive, as stress worsens inflammation.
Here, we rounded up the best six anti-inflammatory exercises you can do for total-body health. Maybe you already do one or more of these — in that case, keep it up! If they're new to you, see if any inspire you.
Yet another reason to roll out your mat: Yoga reduces chronic inflammation and symptoms of inflammatory disease, according to a March 2019 review in Biologic Research for Nursing.
"The focus on posture and stretching helps you slow down," adds certified personal trainer Jacqueline Crockford, CSCS, CPT, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.
2. Swimming or Water Aerobics
Spending time in the pool is a gentle form of exercise and makes for excellent recovery from more high-intensity or high-impact exercise.
"Aquatic workouts are a great way to remain active while not over-stressing the joints and tissues," Crockford says.
3. Aerobic Dance
Whether you Zumba or hip-hop, dance gets you moving while lowering the body's stress levels. "It promotes healing and elicits an anti-inflammatory response," Crockford says.
Research backs this up: A small November 2019 study in Mediators of Inflammation found that people who did a moderate-intensity dance training program had decreased levels of inflammation compared with non-dancers.
4. Virtual Reality Sports
If working up a sweat on the tennis court or ultimate frisbee field is your thing, switch to a VR version of the game. Because it's less intense than in-person play — though still lots of fun — it can help you could score serious anti-inflammatory exercise benefits.
"Because it's more casual than competitive sports, your stress levels are lower, which can help reduce inflammatory markers in your body," says.
5. Brisk Walking
In the Brain, Behavior and Immunity study, participants walked quickly on a treadmill — at a speed that allowed them to talk, but not carry on a full conversation. After 20 minutes of this brisk walking, they had a statistically significant drop in physical stress.
If walking sounds a bit blah to you, liven it up by going with a friend, heading somewhere scenic or tuning into your favorite podcast or audiobook. Or, opt for a low-key hike instead.
6. A Mellow Bike Ride
Like to bike? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cycling slowly (under 10 miles per hour) on flat terrain or a stationary bike strikes the perfect balance between being challenging, yet not too strenuous.
"Any low- to moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory workout — especially one that is low-impact like cycling — is a great choice for reducing inflammation," Crockford says.
How Does Exercise Reduce Inflammation?
First, a clarification: Even though inflammation has a bad rap, in some cases it does serve an important purpose.
When you're sick or hurt, your immune system churns out white blood cells to help fight infections and heal injuries, triggering an inflammatory response. This is called acute inflammation — and because it goes away when you recover from illness or injury), it's typically nothing to worry about, Hong explains.
Chronic inflammation, however, is more concerning because it means your immune system is in overdrive for an extended period of time. Lack of sleep, stress, smoking, a poor diet and physical inactivity can all contribute according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Meanwhile, when you work out, your body produces the natural stress hormones epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine.
"These two hormones play a major role in controlling the activities of immune cells during exercise," Hong says. "We find that they [temporarily] suppress immune cellular activity, which causes inflammation to decrease."
These anti-inflammatory benefits can last anywhere from 3 to 12 hours.
4 Tips for Exercising to Reduce Inflammation
1. Don't Overdo It
Exercise and inflammation have a tricky relationship. And pushing yourself too hard might actually increase inflammation as your body releases a bunch of white blood cells to repair and restore muscle tears.
"Make sure the level of exercise is challenging enough to engage your physiological system, but not so strenuous that it leads to repeated muscle and tissue damage," Hong says. "Even a short bout of mild or moderate exercise is beneficial."
Start slowly, gradually ramping things up. The goal is simply to get moving on a regular basis (every day, if you can swing it),
2. Keep H2O Handy
"Stay hydrated when working out to help promote the movement of anti-inflammatory chemicals throughout the body," Crockford says.
3. Switch Up Your Intensities
If you love the hardcore exercises that, without proper recovery, can aggravate inflammation, "balance them with lightweight strength training and gentle cardio," Jacque says. "Not only will this allow the inflammation to settle down, but it also gives your muscles time to repair and grow stronger."
4. Listen to Your Bbody
Delayed-onset muscle soreness is a sign of post-exercise inflammation. So if you feel achy after working out, that means there are still inflammatory processes repairing muscle. In that case, take the day off or stick to low-key activity.
"If the soreness doesn't go away after two or three days, your body is telling you that the level of exercise was too much," Hong says. "Scale back slightly next time."
Want to reduce some inflammation right now? This 20-minute yoga sequence eases stress, opens up tight joints and feels amazing.
- Brain, Behavior and Immunity: "Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via β2-adrenergic activation"
- Biologic Research for Nursing: "Impact of Yoga on Inflammatory Biomarkers: A Systematic Review"
- Mediators of Inflammation: "Dance Training Improves Cytokine Secretion and Viability of Neutrophils in Diabetic Patients"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Measuring Physical Activity Intensity"
- European Cardiology Review: "The Role of Inflammation in Diabetes: Current Concepts and Future Perspectives"
- Annals of African Medicine: "Inflammation and Cancer"
- Journal of Natural Science: "Linking Chronic Inflammation with Cardiovascular Disease: From Normal Aging to the Metabolic Syndrome"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Understanding acute and chronic inflammation"