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How Exercise Affects Inflammation

How Exercise Affects Inflammation

Not every client has the goal of looking like a fitness model. Many simply want to feel better, improve their body’s ability to prevent disease, and reduce inflammation in their body. As health and fitness professionals, we know exercise has many benefits. But, how does physical exercise affect inflammation specifically?

What is inflammation? When do we need it and when it is harmful? What are some of the risk factors? If you can answer these questions, you can help improve the way you build safe and effective exercise routines for your clients. 

What is Inflammation?

Generally speaking, inflammation is the body’s response to infection or injury to protect itself. The immune system responds by trying to heal the tissue damage or rid the body of the infection. 

When appropriate, we need inflammation. This is typically called acute inflammation. 

Acute Inflammation

If you have a sprain, cut, muscle tear, bruise, etc., on a specific area of your body, acute inflammation typically occurs. The body sends extra blood and extra cells to promote healing. This could cause swelling, redness, scabbing, pain, etc., while the body is trying to heal itself. This inflammation typically lasts for a shorter period of time (a few days to a few weeks). Once the body heals, the inflammation should stop. 

However, if the body or part of the body stays inflamed for too long, this is typically called chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation can be problematic.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation (sometimes called systematic inflammation) is more complex and typically lasts for long periods of time (months to years). When inflammation lingers and the body is unable to heal itself or get rid of the foreign material, it is in a constant state of stress as it continually tries to heal the body. This type of inflammation’s symptoms are typically a bit more subtle (fatigue, body aches, fever, rashes, mood disorders, etc.). These symptoms, however, aren’t the only issue. Over time, chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease (1), diabetes (2), cancer (3), and other chronic diseases. 

The buildup of chronic inflammation is typically gradual and not as noticeable as acute inflammation. And, there are a variety of different factors that may contribute to the rise of chronic inflammation within an individual’s body.

What are some of the factors that can contribute to chronic inflammation?

  • Poor diet: Diets that are high in sugar (4), refined carbohydrates (5), and trans-fatty acids (6) may trigger chronic inflammation
  • Smoking: Among many other health problems caused by smoking. Tobacco can harm our immune system (7)
  • Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol may increase some indicators of inflammation in certain people (8)
  • Obesity: An obese individual may be much more likely to be predisposed to chronic inflammation (9)
  • Age: Inflammation and inflammation-related disease may increase with for older adults (10)

How Do You Determine If You Have Chronic Inflammation?

Because chronic inflammation isn’t one specific disease and can have symptoms of other medical conditions, it is a little more challenging to test for. Currently, one of the most common ways to help determine if a person is dealing with chronic inflammation is a blood test. Clients should see a doctor to discuss symptoms and have the doctor evaluate their blood test. A few of the key indicators that the doctor may look for are:

White Blood Cell Count

This by itself does not necessarily equal chronic inflammation. However, one of the main purposes of white blood cells is to protect the body from disease and infection by destroying foreign or bad cells in the body. An increase in white blood cells in the blood may mean more have been recruited to do just that. This could be an indicator of inflammation or another problem within the body. 

C-Reactive Protein (CRP)

CRP is a certain type of protein found in the blood. High levels of this (typically over 3.0mg/L) (11) in the blood may indicate an issue with the immune system. 

How Can You, as a Health and Fitness Professional, Help?

There is evidence that supports that when clients are physically active, there is a reduction in chronic inflammation. (12) But, on the flip side, too much exercise may cause the opposite. 

Some Inflammation is Good

Some acute inflammation is needed when exercising. This is how clients gain strength, grow, and increase stamina. The stress clients put on their lungs and muscles to help them improve should result in some acute inflammation. The fatigue and muscle soreness after a hard workout are good examples of this. The key, however, is that this is quickly followed by rest, recovery and reduce inflammation before the training is peaked again. 

But Not Too Much

If there is not enough rest and recovery time allowed to reduce the acute inflammation before a client starts exercising hard again, it may create a perfect breeding ground for chronic inflammation. This can be seen with clients that do excessive cardio, complete High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts every day, or train for ultra-long competitions like marathons. 

Just the Right Amount 

Almost all exercises can cause chronic inflammation if they are overdone and the body isn’t allowed to recover. Every person is different, and every person recovers at a different rate. So, there isn’t a one size fits all exercise regime for all clients. As a fitness professional, what you can do, is ensure that we are being mindful of what science has shown us about chronic inflammation. More specifically, how exercise can reduce or increase the chances of chronic inflammation. Here are a few key things to remember when you're guiding clients with their exercise routine:

  • Get them moving: Exercise, even if it is just a little bit each day! But, keep it consistent!
  • Don’t overdo it: Make sure the body can recover after hard workouts!
  • Minimize excessive or consistently lengthy workouts: These may have a reverse effect on inflammation.


Inflammation can be a good thing when our bodies can use it and recover from it appropriately. A variety of different factors can contribute to inflammation in the body. Exercise can reduce inflammation if it’s used the right way!

Are you passionate about health and fitness but not certified? Interested in expanding your knowledge and helping others achieve their health and fitness goals? Check out ISSA’s personal training course to begin changing lives!




  1. Libby, Peter, et. al., “Inflammation and Atherosclerosis.” Circulation. March 2002.
  2. Donath MY and Shoelson SE., “Type 2 diabetes as an inflammatory disease.” Nat Rev Immunol. February 2011.
  3. Ohio State University Medical Center. "How inflammation can lead to cancer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 April 2011. <
  4. James J. DiNicolantonio, et al. “Added Fructose: A Principal Driver of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Its Consequences.”, Elsevier Inc., March 2015.
  5. López-Alarcón M., et. al., “Excessive refined carbohydrates and scarce micronutrients intakes increase inflammatory mediators and insulin resistance in prepubertal and pubertal obese children independently of obesity.” PubMed. November 2014.
  6. Mozaffarian, D., et al. “Dietary intake of trans fatty acids and systemic inflammation in women.”, April 2004.
  7. Lee, J., et. al. “Cigarette Smoking and Inflammation.” Journal of Dental Research. February 2012.
  8. Oliveira, A., et. al, “Alcohol intake and systemic markers of inflammation--shape of the association according to sex and body mass index.” March-April 2010.
  9. Mohammed S. Ellulu., et. al, “Obesity and inflammation: the linking mechanism and the complications.” Archives of Medical Science. June 2017.
  10. Singh, T., and Newman, A. B. Inflammatory markers in population studies of aging. Ageing Res Rev. Elsevier. July 2011.
  11. Nabili, Siamak N., “C-Reactive Protein (Blood Test, Normal, Low, High Ranges).”, June 2019.
  12. Flynn, Michael G., “The Anti-Inflammatory Actions of Exercise Training.” Am J Lifestyle Med. May-June 2007.