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Fitness Fights Inflammation
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Major factor in heart disease and premature aging reduced by exercise

by Craig Weatherby

Recent research has confirmed, resoundingly, what thought leaders like Dr. Nick Perricone started saying years ago: chronic, silent, inflammation is the secret engine driving premature, undue declines in Americans’ health.

Dr. Perricone and others have identified Americans’ typically starchy, sugary, fatty diets, low in fruits and vegetables as a key factor.

As the authors of a 2004 study found, regular exercise and antioxidant-rich diets alike can reduce bodily inflammation levels: “Inflammatory markers are lower in older adults with higher levels of exercise and non-exercise activity and in antioxidant supplement users regardless of exercise level.”

New findings reinforce the importance of exercise in damping the silent but deadly bodily inflammation that drives health downward.

The new study was authored by professor Jeffrey A. Woods and pre-doctoral fellow Victoria J. Vieira, who specialize in kinesiology (exercise science), nutrition, and community health at the University of Illinois (Vieira VJ et al 2007).

They examined fitness test results from 132 sedentary people aged 60 to 83 (47 men; 85 women).

These older adults were recruited to participate in a clinical trial called the Immune Function Intervention Trial (ImFIT), which was designed to examine the relationship between exercise and immune function.

Prospective participants were screened to exclude anyone taking steroid medications that could interfere with immune measurements, as well as smokers and those with health conditions that could distort the results.

The participants’ physical fitness was assessed via tests that measured relevant variables, and underwent tests to determine their levels of physical activity, physical fitness, emotional stress, body composition (bone density and body fat), and blood levels of an inflammation-related protein called CRP that’s associated with greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

As the authors noted, this was the first exercise-inflammation study to take fitness and body fat percentages into account, in order to provide a clear answer to two key questions:

  1. Does having higher levels of fitness reduce CRP (inflammation) levels independently, regardless of body composition (fat-to-muscle ratio)?
  2. Or, does having higher levels of fitness reduce CRP (inflammation) levels mostly by decreasing the ratio of body fat to muscle?

The results they recorded suggest that while both propositions reflect part of the picture, the effects of exercise on body composition can't account for all of its inflammation-reducing power.

Exercise reduced inflammation in older adults

One key measure of fitness is called heart rate recovery (HRR) after exercise, with a better HRR meaning that your heart rate returns to normal rapidly after ceasing exercise.

And as the researchers said in summarizing their findings, “[Improvement in heart rate recovery] after exercise appears to be independently associated with lower CRP [inflammation]...” (Vieira VJ et al 2007).

The results affirm the conclusions of previous research, which indicate that high body fat levels are related to high inflammation levels, while greater fitness is related to lower inflammation levels.

But there was an intriguing wrinkle in the new results. As the researchers said, their results indicate that having a high “parasympathetic tone” reduces inflammation, independent of one’s level of fitness or body composition.

(The body’s nervous system has different parts, including the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. When you exercise, the sympathetic nervous system increases your heart and respiration rates. Once you stop, the parasympathetic system brings them back down.)

Generally speaking, having a high parasympathetic tone indicates a higher level of fitness… but not always. Sometimes it’s just the results of genetics… more evidence that life isn’t always fair!

But having a high parasympathetic tone usually does result from being more fit.

As the Illinois group wrote, “Improvements in PST [parasympathetic tone], as a result of regular physical exercise, may contribute to the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise, independent of physical fitness or fatness" (Vieira VJ et al 2007).

In short, it seems clear that for most of us, regular aerobic exerciserunning, swimming, biking, etc.reduces inflammation levels, thereby reducing the risk of premature aging, heart problems and other inflammation- related degenerative conditions.

And as we said at the outset, previous findings affirm the idea that dietary antioxidantsas obtained from colorful fruits and vegetables and bright-red wild salmonreduce inflammation levels, as can the potent omega-3 fatty acids in fish and fish oil.


  • Vieira VJ, Valentine RJ, McAuley E, Evans E, Woods JA. Independent relationship between heart rate recovery and C-reactive protein in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2007 May;55(5):747-51.
  • Colbert LH, Visser M, Simonsick EM, Tracy RP, Newman AB, Kritchevsky SB, Pahor M, Taaffe DR, Brach J, Rubin S, Harris TB. Physical activity, exercise, and inflammatory markers in older adults: findings from the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2004 Jul;52(7):1098-104.

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