Abdominal pain. Chest pain. Fatigue. Joint pain or stiffness. Mouth sores and skin rashes. Digestive distress. What do these ailments all have in common? They could be symptoms of systemic inflammation.
For starters, it’s important to distinguish the difference between acute vs. chronic inflammation. When it comes to acute inflammation, it’s probably what you think of when you hear the word “inflamed”: redness, swelling, heat, pain or tenderness (think an inflamed cut or swollen ankle). Your body does this to trap bacteria and jumpstart the healing process.
As for chronic, sometimes called systemic (or systemic chronic), this is a little broader, and the causes can be quite varied—as are the results, which vary from person to person. Essentially, “your body sends out inflammatory cells when you are not sick or injured,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. Why? Sometimes the immune system is on overdrive (like with autoimmune disease), and other times certain organ systems are specifically affected (like with IBD, which affects over 3 million Americans). It can present as anything from Crohn’s disease to sinusitis to gum disease to rheumatoid arthritis.
Chronic inflammation—inflammation that persists for months or longer—can “lead to several diseases that collectively represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders,” according to a 2019 study published in Nature.
Exercise for inflammation
The good news is that if you think you’re dealing with chronic inflammation, there’s a free treatment you can start right now, and it’s backed by science! Exercise has been found to reduce inflammation. And before you jump on the treadmill for an hour, know this: 20-minutes is all it takes.
A 2017 study from the University of California, San Diego, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, reported that just one 20-minute session of moderate exercise “stimulate[s] the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response.” Ahead, five scientifically proven options to take advantage of yet another benefit of exercise.
5 anti-inflammatory exercises to try
1. Walking: That aforementioned UCSD study specifically looked at “single bout of 20-min moderate treadmill exercise.” In other words, walking or jogging! A 2018 study on walking for inflammation found similar results: when assessing patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the research found that “a high-intensity interval walking protocol…is associated with reduced disease activity, improved cardiovascular fitness, and improved innate immune functions, indicative of reduced infection risk and inflammatory potential.”
2. Cycling: Speaking of a fan-favorite low-impact workout, it’s time to get your bike out of the garage or hop back on the Peloton for some cycling. Recent research found that 30 minutes (5-minute warm up, 5-minute cool down, 20-minute moderate intensity) led to the “attenuation of inflammatory responses.”
3. Resistance Training: A study in Nutrition Research and Practice concluded that long-term resistance training “could be an effective way to prevent, and delay inflammatory chronic diseases.” That said, the study also emphasized sufficient recovery between sessions to ensure that they don’t make inflammation worse. Another study on resistance training and inflammation, targeting breast cancer survivors, found that this type of exercise, “effectively lowers plasma and tissue-specific inflammation and that these changes are associated with reductions in fatigue and improved physical and behavioral function in postmenopausal [breast cancer survivors].”
4. Yoga: Harvard looked at the effects of chronic stress on chronic inflammation, and reported that “chronic stress has been linked to…increased chronic inflammation.” To target this cause of inflammation, look no further than a tried-and-true sun salutation. Innumerable studies have found yoga to have positive effects on mental health, including stress levels and anxiety. There’s also research indicating that yoga may have a direct impact on the biomarkers of inflammation “across a multitude of chronic conditions.”
De-stress in downward dog with this 20-minute flow:
5. Swimming: You don’t have to be Katie Ledecky to reap the anti-inflammatory, stress-busting benefits of swimming. Although researchers haven’t yet studied the effects of swimming on inflammation in humans, one study on rodents found that “swimming exercise reduces inflammatory and peripheral neuropathic pain,” and another rodent study found decreased colitis inflammation with swimming. These effects may be due to the fact that this low-impact exercise can boost mood and lower stress.
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