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Can exercise boost immune function in children?

Family exercise

Photo: Getty Images

During the current COVID-19 crisis, parents are looking for ways to keep their children safe. Basic good health habits may help. Making sure your children are well fed, getting enough sleep, and getting exercise are common sense measures. But, can exercise really boost immune function in children? The immune system consists of certain blood cells and molecules, such as immunoglobulins and cytokines, that help the body fight infection. To be clear, there is currently no scientific evidence that regular exercise can help children or adults resist COVID-19. No doubt a lot of research will be taking place during this crisis to see what health habits seemed to protect people against getting sick. We won’t know for sure until this pandemic is over. 

In the meantime, there is some evidence that exercise can boost immune function in children. As in so many areas of sports medicine, very little research has been done looking at the effects of exercise on the immune system in children, but there is some promising data. For example, children with HIV have improvements in their immune function after a few weeks of regular exercise consisting of running and yoga exercise four times per week. Studies in children with other serious diseases, such as cancer, chronic lung disease, diabetes and kidney disease have shown improvements in different parts of immune function. A few studies in otherwise healthy children have also shown improvements in immune function. 

Maybe the best news from these limited studies is that a variety of different kinds of exercise, like running, biking, resistance training, various kinds of dancing and yoga have been shown to improve immune function in children in some way. The take home message is, keep your children moving. 

  • Give them a variety of options (as long as they don’t break any furniture) for exercise in and near the home, and make sure they exercise regularly. 
  • Set aside a specific time during the day for indoor or backyard play. 
  • As a parent, be willing to put up with some basketball dribbling or some loud dance music in the house during that exercise time. 

Also, there are a number of great videos on the internet for indoor exercise ranging from body weight training, basketball dribbling, martial arts, dance, yoga and aerobic exercise.

One final thought. Most child mental health experts will tell you that one of the most important things you can give a child during a stressful time is structure. Structure, routine and consistency give children a sense of security, particularly in scary times, which can reduce their stress. Reducing stress may also help fight infection. Keep your children in a routine and make regular exercise part of that routine.