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Immune function in female elite rowers and non-athletes


Objective—To compare immune function in female rowers and controls in the resting state, and then correlate the results with a two month history of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI).

Methods—Subjects included 20 elite female rowers located at the ARCO Olympic Training Centre in Chula Vista, California, and 19 non-athletic female controls. These two groups were compared cross sectionally for immune function and infection rates.

Results—Granulocyte/monocyte phagocytosis, oxidative burst activity, and plasma cytokine concentrations (interleukin-6, tumour necrosis factor-α, and interleukin-1 receptor antagonist) did not differ significantly between groups. Phytohaemagglutinin induced lymphocyte proliferative response (adjusted whole blood method) was significantly higher (31% and 36% for optimal and suboptimal concentrations respectively) in rowers than in controls. Natural killer cell activity was substantially higher (1.6-fold for total lytic units) in the female rowers than in controls. Two month health logs disclosed 5.2 (1.2) and 3.3 (1.1) days with URTI symptoms for the rowers and controls respectively (p = 0.268). For all 39 subjects combined, and for the 20 rowers separately, none of the immune parameters correlated significantly with number of days with URTI symptoms.

Conclusions—In this cross sectional comparison of elite female rowers and non-athletes, a group difference was found for natural killer cell activity and phytohaemagglutinin induced proliferative response (whole blood technique), but not other measures of immune function. The number of days with URTI symptoms during the spring season did not differ between groups, and variations in blood measures of immunity were unrelated to URTI.

  • rowing
  • immune system
  • neutrophil
  • lymphocyte
  • phagocytosis
  • natural killer cell

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