BLOG: Benefits of physical activity for COVID-19 vaccination
Physical activity

In this blog Aideen Sheehan from the Institute of Public Health offers some insights on how a little physical activity can boost your immune system for vaccination.

Exercise is not just good for the body and soul, it can also help older people reap the full benefits of vaccination. 

Regular aerobic exercise in the weeks or months prior to COVID-19 vaccination could play a key part in boosting the immune system’s response, helping older people get the best possible protection from the vaccine. 

That’s an important message from a new Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) report that looks at international evidence on vaccine effectiveness, as well data from Ireland on vaccine uptake in previous campaigns against winter flu. 

As vaccine programmes roll out across Ireland and Northern Ireland, the evidence indicates the importance of getting active and keeping active as we await our turn. 

The international evidence for vaccine efficacy generally shows that for older people, stepping up activity levels can improve the antibody-specific reactions that help vaccines give longer-lasting protection. 

“Boosting activity doesn’t mean you have to take up triathlons or punishing workouts…a 30-minute walk will give real benefits”

The TILDA review found that “older adults who have higher levels of physical activity generate better antibody responses following vaccination”.

However, we know our older population in Ireland do not get enough physical activity for good health. TILDA found that 44% of those aged 60 or over do less than the recommended level of activity to boost their cardiovascular health and immune systems. Data also shows that more than half of women (52%) are inactive, while levels decline further as people age.

In Northern Ireland, just 41% of people aged 65-74, and 10% of those aged 75 and over, meet physical activity guidelines.

It’s crucial to get the message out to these groups about the benefits and facilitate them to be more active, whether that’s inside or outside the home. 

Boosting activity doesn’t mean you have to take up triathlons or punishing workouts – TILDA suggests that getting out two or three times a week for a 30-minute walk that’s brisk enough to make you breathe harder will give real benefits.   

Report co-author Dr Cillian McDowell from Trinity College said that “evidence suggests that being more active can help to boost vaccine specific antibody responses, particularly among older adults. Based on this, we encourage adults aged over 60 to make an effort to move more and incorporate a form of aerobic exercise into their lives in the weeks and months prior to vaccination. Some activity is good, but more is better, and a good goal would be a 30-minute walk brisk enough to increase your breathing rate, done 2 – 3 times per week.” 

The key to getting benefits is to make exercise part of your normal life, as the evidence shows prolonged moderate exercise over months is the most helpful in boosting the immune response.  

For those who cannot get outside there are many online classes and other resources that can help – for example this ‘Move More’ guide.

The TILDA data also provides strong evidence that the best way to reach older people with public health messages is via traditional media such as radio, TV and newspapers rather than websites or social media. This is based on where people got their information about previous vaccination campaigns. 

And while COVID-19 is foremost in all our minds right now, this report by the Institute of Public Health shows the benefits of physical activity are numerous and last well beyond vaccination – it also protects against heart disease, many types of cancer and dementia.

Add to that the mental benefits of reducing depression and anxiety levels, and the feel-good factor involved in clearing the head, and it’s clear physical activity should be a key part of all our armour in helping us get through these challenging times to enjoy better days ahead.

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