Though we often oversimplify inflammation as something to avoid at all costs, it exists for a very important reason: to protect our body from infection, bacteria, and viruses. Really, this natural defense mechanism is only a problem when it’s chronic.
Many factors impact whether inflammation gets out of control in our system—and our exercise routine is certainly one of them. Here, experts break down the facts on inflammation and share their biggest do’s and don’ts for making sure your workouts are keeping chronic inflammation at bay.
Inflammation And Exercise
When talking about inflammation, it’s important to distinguish the acute from the chronic.
“When inflammation occurs, your immune system sends out signals to cells to attack bacteria, like an infection, or to clean up debris, be it from a trauma or damaged tissue,” explains Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., founder of Beyond Fitness. “The intention of inflammation is good, but the problems occur when it becomes chronic.”
Chronic inflammation occurs when your immune system still sends out these signals even when you aren’t sick or injured. This can lead to a host of other issues, such as excessive pain, fatigue, heart disease, some forms of cancer, diabetes, dementia, IBS, and even difficulties maintaining or losing weight.
Read More: 6 Signs You Have Chronic Inflammation
The good news is that it’s possible to help reduce that chronic inflammation in your body—and one of the best methods of doing so is exercise. In fact, one study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that just 20-minute sessions of moderate-intensity exercise can have an anti-inflammatory effect. “Exercise increases blood flow, and this can help reduce the accumulation of inflammatory cells and cytokines,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness.
There’s a catch, though: When it comes to exercise and inflammation, sometimes more isn’t better. You see, exercise can both cause and reduce inflammation; it all depends on the amount and intensity.
An Inflammation-Fighting Workout Routine: The Do’s And Don’ts
So what does the ideal inflammation-fighting workout routine look like? Abide by these do’s and don’ts.
Do: Incorporate resistance training
As long as it’s done appropriately, resistance training is a great way to minimize inflammation in the joints. “Joints without proper lubrication don’t move well and create friction that results in an inflammatory response,” explains Daniels. “By adding more movement to a joint through resistance training, you create more lubrication in it, which leads to less friction and ultimately less inflammation.
That’s why Daniels recommends incorporating resistance training exercises—whether bodyweight or using an external load—that get each of your major joints moving a few times each week. Just keep in mind that your training should be pain-free, so stick to a level of resistance you can work with comfortably.
Don’t: Ignore your pain and injuries
Aside from maybe a quick burn here and there, your workouts shouldn’t be causing you pain, notes Daniels. “Unless you are getting paid millions to win the Super Bowl, fighting through an injury is a bad idea,” he says. “When you push through pain, you create a greater injury leading to more inflammation.” If you are injured or in pain, he recommends taking the time to heal appropriately before training that area again.
Do: Take rest days
As any professional athlete or trainer will tell you, rest days are non-negotiable. When you exercise, you put stress on your body. While this can help you increase your stamina and get stronger, the actual adaptation occurs while you’re resting. “By allowing time between your intense workouts, you can minimize tissue injury and inflammation and allow your body to recover,” Adams says.
“If bouts of exercise do not have enough recovery in between them, the overall result is the opposite of what is desired and performance decreases,” agrees certified nutrition consultant and health and fitness coach Marvin Nixon, M.S., N.B.C.-H.W.C., C.P.T.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to sit idly on your rest day, though. Just stick with low-impact activities, such as brisk walking or yoga, Adams suggests.
Don’t: Skimp on sleep
Just as rest days give your body a chance to recover and help reduce inflammation in the body, so do the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. In fact, too little or inconsistent sleep has been associated with elevated levels of inflammation, per research published in the journal frontiers in Neurology. “Sleep is the best thing you can do to let your body heal, as specific parts of the sleep cycle focus on healing the tissues of the body,” adds Daniels. That’s right; one of the most important factors in an inflammation-fighting workout routine isn’t a workout at all!
Do: Be consistent
“When we exercise on a consistent basis, we keep the blood flowing throughout our body at a reasonable pace and help move a lot of the inflammatory cells through the body to be processed and removed,” explains Daniels. He recommends setting a weekly schedule that works for you and sticking to it. “After a few weeks, you will start noticing that your joints move better, your digestion is better, and your energy has improved—all signs of decreased inflammation,” he says.
Don’t: Do more than 60 minutes of HIIT per week
Some HIIT training can be very beneficial, however, doing too much can have the opposite effect and actually cause more inflammation in the body. “As a general rule, I like to have clients throw in a few 10- to 20-minute HIIT sessions per week, only when their bodies are in a good hormonal and metabolic state,” says online fitness coach, Allison Sizemore, C.P.T., C.S.N. (That means no chronic dieting or over-exercising.) However those workouts break down, she recommends capping total HIIT time at 60 minutes per week.
Her reason: When you exercise hard, you create micro-tears in your muscles that must repair and rebuild. The way the magic happens? An inflammatory response. “While some of this is necessary and a good thing, too much is not and can create an overstressed environment in which there are chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body that causes you to lose muscle, retain fat, and lower your guard against illness and injury,” Sizemore suggests.
Do: Stay hydrated
Hydration is important for all sorts of reasons and, if you want to minimize inflammation, it’s something you should be striving for before, during, and after each workout. “By maintaining or increasing hydration levels around your workout, you can reduce the inflammatory response that is natural with more intense exercise because the extra fluid helps flush out toxins in the body,” says Adams. A good rule of thumb: Consume eight to 12 ounces of water before you exercise followed by eight ounces every 30 minutes or so during your workout.