Nobody likes getting sick. From that first tickle in your throat to sneezing and the chills, we all dread the moment that illness will strike. Coming down with a cold or flu is so disruptive to our daily lives.
It’s only natural to want to do what we can to keep our immune system running as well as possible so we can stay healthy. Unfortunately, despite all the products and “natural home remedies” floating around out there, there is no special trick. It’s not as simple as taking the newest miracle pill or drinking a combination of herbs or spraying essential oils. Those are more likely to lighten your wallet than stop you from getting ill.
But there are some strategies that you can employ that will do you good.
What is the immune system?
Our immune system consists of a lot of processes designed to combat “invaders” such as viruses and bacteria. In general, it does so with inflammatory responses that include a cascade of effects, including fever and body aches (to get you to rest) and releasing cells that devour these invading pathogens. It also has specialized defenses, such as when specialized proteins produce specific antibodies when they recognize attackers from the past.
This is a very simplified description of what exactly is happening in a well-functioning immune system. There’s a massive interaction between hormones, blood and lymph cells, and nervous system responses forming our natural defense network. All create the familiar symptoms of “being sick” and keep us from succumbing to viruses and bacteria. So things such as fevers, sneezing and fatigue make us feel pretty bad, but they are a part of our body’s fight against illness and help us in the long run to get better, destroy the foreign invaders and get back to our regular lives.
With this in mind, there are a few big factors that contribute to the health of our immune system response, and ones that we can directly affect.
Immune system factors
Unfortunately, the claims of various products and the promotion of “superfoods” to boost immunity are suspect. Though what is consistently proved is to make sure deficiencies are covered, especially in older (50-plus years of age) people. Deficiencies in vitamins A, B (groups), C, D and E and minerals such as zinc and iron are primarily because of consistent dietary routines that lack variety, especially regarding vegetables and/or simply not eating enough. You could take different supplements, but it’s best to take a critical look at your whole food intake and make real changes.
This doesn’t mean maintaining a very restricted diet. The tried-and-true advice for a balanced diet may not be very exciting, but it is absolutely true. A restricted diet, one that promotes certain foods over others, or one that you adhere to but seem to only eat the same foods again and again, is not productive for you in the long run.
Getting enough sleep is a big deal! Along with all the other benefits that sleep provides for us (memory consolidation, growth and repair, mental health), it is also a crucial part for maintaining a healthy immune response.
Again, how sleep is involved is incredibly complicated and detailed. But in general, during sleep there is a cycle of inflammatory processes with various hormone and immune cell activations that promote preventative and active responses in the immune system. Put simply, if you don’t sleep well or enough, you put yourself at risk for getting sick. There is quite a bit of research supporting this, with one study finding that sleeping less than seven hours a night makes you almost three times more likely to catch a cold. Furthermore, sleep problems lead to increased stress, and stress is another big factor in how our immune system works.
We all know that being stressed is not good for us. But in truth, stress plays a big role in our overall health. And while it is more complex than simply saying stress will make you sick, in general, it seems that prolonged stress changes how your immune system responds to threats.
There is a big difference between acute and chronic stress, however. Acute—sudden but brief—stress is pretty much unavoidable; unexpected accidents and events happen all the time. When stress is chronic, though—prolonged and constant—that’s when it affects our health and can lead to so many problems.
What is very good for us, instead, is to engage in purposeful brief stress. “Purposeful” in that we choose it and acknowledge that it is useful, and “brief” in that it happens and stops so that we can recover and grow from it. This “good” stress stimulates our bodies to be more resilient, just as in building muscle from a workout. And that really is what movement is, a stimulatory good stress from which we gain instead of lose function.
But can too much movement be too much of a good thing? It depends a lot on what you are doing and how you treat your training regimen.
What is really interesting is that while it’s been found that there are decreased immune system responses with prolonged intensive training, there really hasn’t been any direct relationship to increased illnesses with intense training in already healthy individuals. This, of course, changes if you are already sick or have particular chronic health conditions; you have to realize how to adapt this to your situation. Yet it’s great to know that most of the time, a few hard workouts in a row isn’t going to make you catch a cold.
But remember what we talked about in regards to stress above? Psychological stress has been associated with depressing immune system responses. And being too strictly regimented in your workout routine, like stressing out over completing the workouts no matter what the rest of your life is like, is not a great idea.
Consistency, of course, is incredibly important, but knowing when to adapt and change what you do is even more so. This is the secret to the lifelong habit of fitness, and also for being healthy!
This doesn’t necessarily mean taking full days off (though you may need to from time to time). shows that regular moderate movement is better for our immune system than inactivity.
So rather than stressing out about your scheduled intense workout, you should have a nice alternative in your pocket. Do something that still gets your whole body moving and is relatively challenging but isn’t too stressful to your mind and body.
With this in mind, we’ve created this body-weight routine that you can do anywhere you have a chair and a bit of space.
Standing Thoracic Expansion
This is a great move for opening up your chest and shoulders and counteracting the slumped position that most of us are in when we work at our desks or are driving. Combined with a deep inhale as you perform it, you’ll also be expanding your ribs and extending your midback and upper back. Bending backward while standing also helps with stretching out and loosening up your hip flexors, which is always a good thing.
- Put your palms together, and reach up and back as you lift your chest and look upward to follow your hands as they curve back behind you.
- When you’ve gone back as far as you can, bring your hands apart and circle your elbows as wide as you can and return to the center.
- Do 10 reps and repeat for three to five sets.
Supported Squat and Forward Bend
This combination exercise works to stretch and strengthen your hips in the deep squat position as well as your back and your hamstrings.
- Use a chair (or other sturdy object) as support, and sit down into as low of a squat as you can perform without pain. For a lot of people, stiffer ankles stop them from going into a deep squat, so grasping onto the chair helps your balance as you sit more backward.
- Then rise up and bend forward with your back straight, and push your hips backward until you feel a stretch; hold a few seconds. You can shift your upper-body weight more onto the chair for a more comfortable forward bend.
- Do 10 reps and repeat for three to five sets.
Supported Side-Bend Lunge
This active stretch is a full-body move that works the often-neglected side-bending movement in both your lower and upper body.
- Bring a chair in front of the foot you will lunge and bend toward, and make your stance about double your shoulder width.
- Place the same-side hand on the chair for support, and reach up and to the side with your other hand. Work on keeping your chest up and back straight so you feel the stretching more on the side of your body.
- Hold the position for three to five seconds, and then return back to the beginning and reset to repeat again.
- Do five reps on each side and repeat for three to five sets.
Plank Twist With Push-Up
Another great combination move is the plank twist with a push-up in between. Here, you’ll be working on both your upper body and core flexibility and strength.
- Begin either on all fours or at the top of a push-up position, and reach one hand up to the ceiling to rotate your chest upward.
- Return to the center and perform a push-up (on knees or toes), and then repeat to the other side. That’s one repetition.
- Perform six to 10 reps for three to five
Last in this routine is a classic dynamic abdominal exercise.
- Lie on your back. Support your head with your hands and curl up to rotate and lift your knee to meet the opposite-side elbow, and repeat in the opposite direction.
- You can make this exercise easier by sitting up more and maintaining the same position as you twist to meet elbows and knees.
- Conversely, you can make it harder by starting flatter and rising up, perform the twist and then go back down again. This increases the range of motion of the exercise, making it more difficult.
- Try both and perform for either lower or higher repetitions for a different effect.
- Do 15 to 30 repetitions for three to five sets.
Photo and video credit: Courtesy of GMB Fitness