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Deleterious effects of short-term, high-intensity exercise on immune function: evidence from leucocyte mitochondrial alterations and apoptosis
  1. T-C Tuan1,2,
  2. T-G Hsu3,
  3. M-C Fong4,
  4. C-F Hsu4,
  5. K K C Tsai4,
  6. C-Y Lee4,
  7. C-W Kong1
  1. 1
    National Yang-Ming University, School of Medicine, Taiwan
  2. 2
    Taoyuan Veterans Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan
  3. 3
    Institute of Sports Science, Taipei Physical Education College, Taiwan
  4. 4
    Division of Cardiology, Department of Medicine, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, Tapei, Taiwan
  1. Dr C-W Kong, Division of Cardiology, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, No 201, Sec 2, Shih-Pai Road, Taipei, 11217, Taiwan; cwkong{at}


Background: Although moderate exercise can benefit health, acute and vigorous exercise may have the opposite effect. Strenuous exercise can induce alterations in the physiology and viability of circulating leucocytes, which have a causal relationship with exercise-induced immune distress.

Objectives: To investigate the use of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (MTP), a functional marker of the energy and viability status of leucocytes, for monitoring the immunomodulating effects of short-term, high-intensity exercise.

Methods: 12 healthy volunteers with a mean Vo2max of 70.4 ml/kg/min carried out 3 consecutive days of high-intensity exercise (85% of Vo2max for 30 min every day). Blood samples were collected at multiple time points immediately before and after each exercise session and at 24 and 72 h after the completion of exercise. Leucocyte MTP, apoptosis and circulatory inflammation markers were measured by flow cytometry and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays.

Results: MTP of peripheral blood leucocytes had declined immediately after the first exercise session and remained subnormal 24 h later. It did not normalise until 72 h after exercise. The sequential changes in MTP were consistent among the three leucocyte subpopulations (polymorphonuclear neutrophils, lymphocytes and monocytes) and were significant (p<0.05). Leucocytes displayed a gradual and incremental change in their propensity for apoptosis during and after exercise. Similarly, plasma concentrations of tumour necrosis factor-α and soluble Fas ligand were raised during the exercise sessions and had not normalised by 72 h after the completion of exercise. Correlation between changes in leucocyte MTP and plasma concentrations of tumour necrosis factor-α and soluble Fas ligand was variable, but significant for polymorphonuclear neutrophils and lymphocytes (p<0.05).

Conclusions: Short-term, high-intensity exercise can lead to a significant and prolonged dysfunction of the mitochondrial energy status of peripheral blood leucocytes, which is accompanied by an increased propensity for apoptosis and raised pro-inflammatory mediators. These results support the immunosuppressive effects of excessive exercise and suggest that MTP is a useful marker of these effects.

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  • Competing interests: None.

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