Part of being physically and mentally healthy includes having a strong and healthy immune system. There is a lot of emphasis on being physically fit and in shape, or happy and mentally healthy, but there isn’t enough focus on having a healthy immune system.
What does this mean?
I suppose it’s kind of implied. In my opinion, though, there isn’t enough of a focus on the things we can do to ensure that our immune system is as optimally functional – just as our bodies are fit, as our diets are whole and varied, or as we are being mindful, practicing self-care and being happy.
How many of us have the knowledge, resources, social support or coaching that allows us to ensure that we are healthy in all aspects of our lives? I’d say about twenty-five to thirty percent, if I’m being realistic, but with the rise of health issues – both mental and physical – that number SHOULD be closer to eighty percent, or even 100% in an ideal world.
Our lifestyles harm us
We live very strenuous, fast-paced lifestyles that don’t really allow us to be as strong as we are capable of being. This is an issue in our everyday lives; most of our environments actually work to weaken our immune system, rather than strengthen it. That’s why it’s extremely important to monitor your body and the signals it’s giving you.
The types of things that can compromise our immune system include:
- Heavy training
- Chronic stress: emotional, nutritional, mental and/or physical stress
- Long work hours / intense work lifestyle
- Lack of rest/recovery; sleep disturbances
- Changing environments: traveling, moving, or being constantly “on the go”
- Exposure to environmental pathogens: harmful microorganisms, pollution, contamination, etc
All of these stressors either upregulate us, which can lead to auto-immune disease; or they can downregulate our immune system, which can lead to a weakened immune system and lowered immunity. Because of the complexity of our immune systems, it’s separated into two branches: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. Both of these branches play integral parts in the management of our overall health:
The Innate Immune System
The innate immune system is our main line of defence. It includes our physical and structural barriers, chemical barriers, and protective cells. Women tend to have a much stronger immune system than men, making them better against fighting off colds and common sicknesses. These defences include:
- Physical/structural barriers such as mucus membranes
- Chemical barriers like stomach acid
- Protective cells include white blood cells, which are our natural killers that help us fight off infection and disease
The adaptive immune system
The adaptive immune system is our special line of defence, if you will. It is composed of highly-specialized cells and functions. When pathogens and stressors overcome our immune system, the adaptive system kicks in to prevent further illness or issues.
When we talk about “building immunity,” we’re generally referring to the strengthening and reinforcement of this adaptive system. This system has a type of memory that allows us to build up a tolerance to specific types of pathogens, and that works to fight them and withstand their effect on us.
When children end up sick, it’s mostly due to the fact that they haven’t had the time or opportunity to build up enough strength in their adaptive immune system.
Exercise that prevents illness
There is often a ‘J’-shaped curve in relation to exercise and immunity. This means that
- no exercise means your body isn’t being put under any stress, which is no good
- some exercise within the zone of appropriate rest and recovery is good
- a lot of exercise challenges a person’s limits of rest and recovery is detrimental and therefore also not good.
This study reports on the correlation between exercise habits and influenza, and the results are pretty substantial:
- People who never exercised got sick pretty often
- People who exercised between once a month and three times a week performed the best against potential illness
- People who exercised more than 4x per week got sick the most
Exercise can both negatively and positively affect our immune systems. The most notable variables include: the duration of your workouts, the frequency of workouts per week, the intensity of each workout, and the capacity of the person performing the exercise.
Athletes vs. amateurs
How an athlete trains plays an important role in the strength of both the innate and adaptive immune system. It’s important to understand that most athletes – especially professional athletes – have the resources available to keep their immune systems topped up, prevent any nutrient or mineral deficiencies, and have access to some of the best rehabilitation to ensure that they stay healthy and recover swiftly.
Over time you will begin to notice that as your level of athleticism improves, certain types of exercises will serve to strengthen one or both sides of your immune system. Consistent moderate endurance exercise and resistance training can strengthen the immune system over time, BUT chronic high-intensity / long duration exercise can negatively impact immune function.
For all of the stubborn gym rats out there, this means that if you feel like crap, TAKE A BREAK!
Keep an eye out next week for part 2 – focusing on nutrition side of this topic!
If you are looking for coaching or training, contact me for a free assessment and consultation.
Wes Van Hart is a personal trainer, nutritionist (and far more), located in Toronto. Wes is an advocate for constantly improving both physical and mental health, and as such, he is dedicated to advancing his knowledge base, certifications and ability to help his clients, no matter how that looks.
Wes was the very first FitIn affiliate, and is a regular contributor to the FitIn blog.