Weight Lifting and the Flu Jab | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Weight lifting and the flu jab

This research was completed on 30 June 2010

Published on 6 October 2006

The flu jab spares people from illness and saves lives. But it doesn’t protect everyone. Some people catch the flu even though they’ve been vaccinated. Researchers are investigating whether exercise can boost the jab’s effects, so it can protect more people. If successful, this simple, cheap and natural intervention could offer major benefits.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

The flu is still a killer

There is no cure for the flu. It is a major cause of illness and its well-known symptoms can be extremely debilitating, even for the most resilient amongst us.

More vulnerable people, such as the elderly, are at risk of developing serious complications, including pneumonia. Sadly, many go on to lose their lives to the flu. Even during a good year, it normally kills more than one thousand people in England and Wales (1). Figures rise dramatically during epidemics – over 27,000 deaths were attributed to the illness during the flu season of 1989 to 1990 (1).

The flu jab offers protection from infection – it reduces the number of people who get ill and saves lives. But the jab doesn’t help everyone.

People vary in how well their immune system responds to the flu vaccine. Studies suggest the flu jab may halve an elderly person’s chances of being infected by the influenza virus (3). But this leaves many people at risk of catching the flu even though they’ve had the jab.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Does exercise make the flu jab more effective?

This project will build on exciting preliminary data, which suggest that someone’s immunity to the flu is boosted if they perform a short exercise routine before having their jab.

Researchers are recruiting 320 healthy young men and women. The recruits will have the flu jab after performing arm exercises, which involve lifting weights. The exercises cause inflammation in the arm, which researchers believe might kick-start the immune system, so it is ready to go when the vaccine is injected.

The team will first identify the best time to give the flu jab after exercise, by comparing the immune responses in people vaccinated immediately after exercising, or after a delay of 6 and 48 hours, and in people who don’t exercise at all. They will go on to identify the optimal exercise intensity by varying the weights used.

Researchers also plan to explore the molecular mechanisms by which exercise might boost the effects of vaccination.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr V Burns PhD
Project team
  • Dr Christopher Ring PhD
  • Prof Douglas Carroll PhD
  • Dr Jos Bosch PhD
  • Prof John Gordon PhD
  • Dr Kate M Edwards PhD
  • Dr Mark T Drayson PhD MBChB
LocationSchool of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Division of Immunity and Infection, MRC Centre for Immune Regulation at University of Birmingham
Other locations
  • MRC Centre for Immune Regulation, Institute of Biomedical Research, The Medical School, Bimringham
  • Division of Immunity and Infection, Medical School, University of Birmingham
DurationThree years
Grant awarded6 July 2006
Start date1 July 2007
End date30 June 2010
Grant amount£103,929.00
Grant codeSP4150

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The researchers working on this project are leading experts in how a person’s behaviour or experiences can affect their immune system. They are the only group in the world to have published research demonstrating that a short bout of exercise could be used to boost the efficacy of influenza vaccination in humans.

This project will be conducted in the new £16.4 million Sport and Exercise Sciences building at The University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the university’s School of Medicine. With their impressive track record, the excellent facilities available to them, and support from the university’s network of internationally renowned immunologists, the team is well placed to succeed.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Paving the way for large-scale trials

This project should clearly establish whether a short bout of exercise boosts the immune response to the flu vaccine in healthy young people. If exercise does help, there will be an urgent need for further trials in the vulnerable population of older people who are most at risk from the flu. Researchers believe this project will provide the information they need to get on with conducting large-scale trials in older people as quickly as possible.

If effective, exercise could be a very simple, cheap and natural way to boost the effects of the flu jab. It might increase immunity and help protect more people from the flu, sparing them from illness and saving lives. It may also mean the jab can work at lower doses, which would decrease costs and increase availability. The repercussions of this research could be even more widespread. If exercise helps boost the effects of the flu jab, then it may also help in vaccination programmes against a wide range of other infectious diseases as well.


  1. Crofts JP, Joseph CA, Zambon M, Ellis J, Fleming DM, Watson JM (2003). Influenza surveillance in the United Kingdom: October 2002 to May 2003. Health Protection Agency, Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre.
  2. Govaert TM, Thijs CT, Masurel N, Sprenger MJ, Dinant GJ, Knottnerus JA. The efficacy of influenza vaccination in elderly individuals. A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. JAMA 1994; 272 (21):1700-1.
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