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Physical Activity Lowers Inflammation

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2012

According to Mark Hamer, PhD, of University College London, and colleagues, compared with individuals who rarely adhered to physical activity guidelines over a 10-year follow-up, those who consistently engaged in leisure activity had significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 (PˇÜ0.07 for both).

Those who increased their activity levels to meet recommendations of at least 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week also had significantly lower levels of both biomarkers compared with those who had stable activity levels, the researchers reported.

"Given that inflammatory markers gradually rise with increasing age and that this proinflammatory status underlies biological mechanisms responsible for cardiovascular disease, physical activity may be regarded as an important factor for the prevention of age-related disease risk," they wrote.

Anti-inflammatory processes are believed to be involved in the cardioprotective effects of physical activity. Although higher physical activity levels have been associated with less inflammation in cross-sectional studies, few prospective data exist.

To explore the issue, Hamer and colleagues examined data from 4,289 men and women (mean age 49.2) who were participating in the Whitehall II study, an ongoing prospective study of British civil servants. The participants self-reported physical activity levels at baseline (1991-1993), at a midpoint assessment (1997-1999), and at the final observation for the current analysis (2002-2004).

They were then divided into three groups according to rarely meeting physical activity guidelines (at one or no assessments), sometimes meeting them (at two of the three assessments), or always meeting them.

Researchers measured inflammatory markers at baseline and the final assessment. Average follow-up was 11.3 years. About half of the participants (49%) said they engaged in physical activity at least 2.5 hours per week at all three assessments.

Those who were deemed to be physically active at baseline had lower C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 levels compared with those who were not, after adjustment for age, sex, smoking, employment grade, body mass index, and chronic illness. The difference remained stable throughout follow-up.

Over time, there was an overall increase in levels of both inflammatory markers -- 0.44 mg/L (21%) for C-reactive protein and 0.41 pg/mL (16%) for interleukin-6.Compared with individuals who rarely adhered to physical activity guidelines during the study period, those who always did had lower levels of both C-reactive protein (difference of 0.18 mg/L) and interleukin-6 (difference of 0.20 pg/mL).

Increasing activity levels to meet the exercise guidelines between the second and third assessments also was associated with lower levels of both biomarkers. Those who always met the physical activity guidelines tended to be men, and have a higher income and a lower BMI.

The findings were independent of body fat -- an important site for the production of inflammatory markers -- and changes in body composition.

Practice Pearls:

  • Note that the study found that regular physical activity was associated with lower markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6) over 10 years of follow-up
  • Cross-sectional epidemiological studies have demonstrated an inverse association between physical activity and markers of low-grade systemic inflammation. This study looked at the association between long-term physical activity and inflammatory markers.

Source:, Hamer M, et al "Physical activity and inflammatory markers over 10 years: Follow-up in men and women from the Whitehall II cohort study" Circulation 2012; DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.112.103879.

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