The subject of health is front and center these days, whether we’re considering socially distanced gatherings, grocery store outings, or sending our kids back to school. And while we still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, one thing is clear — keeping our bodies in tip-top shape is one of the best ways to fight against the virus. We asked some local experts to weigh in on a few of the best prevention practices and what we can do to ramp up our immune systems.
5 Easy Ways to Boost Your Immune System
It’s a no-brainer that exercise is crucial to keeping your body physically fit, but how does it affect your immunity, and how much exercise do you really need? Having a consistent exercise routine is vital since it increases the circulation of immune cells and helps build immunity by reducing inflammation. Not to mention, exercise is a fantastic stress release, and stress is a major culprit in suppressing our immune systems.
If you’ve already developed a daily routine that works for you, keep on keeping on. If you’re still waiting for some motivation, we hope this offers you the right amount of encouragement. “If you are feeling out of shape or lethargic, just start,” says Brittany Horton of Irontribe Fitness. “Lace up your tennis shoes and take that first step.” Slow and steady is the way to go; don’t overdo it. In fact, overtraining can do more harm than good — everything in moderation. “If you tend to train at a higher intensity, make sure you are getting adequate rest in between your workouts,” Brittany advises. For beginners, moderate activity for 30 to 60 minutes, at least three times per week, is ideal. The idea is to be consistent and make small adjustments each day. “Every time you take action toward your goals, your confidence will build,” Brittany adds. “Before you know it, you will be well on your way to reaching your goal.”
If you’re uncomfortable going back to the gym, there are many ways to achieve your fitness goals at home. It’s important to remember that getting into shape doesn’t necessarily mean lifting kettlebells or ordering an expensive treadmill from Amazon. Getting out to enjoy the great outdoors is one of the most effective ways to get some exercise while also taking in some much-needed fresh air and Vitamin D (but don’t forget the sunscreen!). For those of us who are working from home, the trick is to get up and move as much as possible, whether that means taking short breaks throughout the day or stretching while on a conference call. “If you’re like me, you may be working from a kitchen table taking Zoom calls all day,” Brittany says. “I recommend getting up every 30 minutes to stretch and move around. There are so many exercises you can do at home with no equipment. Get creative! It will give you an energy boost to help combat that mid-afternoon slump. Do not let the pandemic be your excuse to get out of shape.”
Brittany reminds us to take all of the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and others safe if we do decide to head back to our favorite gym, including wearing a mask when we enter and exit, practicing social distancing, and wiping down equipment before and after use. And if the gym isn’t your thing, don’t fret. “Exercise can and should be fun, so find something you enjoy,” she says. “Walk, dance, run, play ball with your kids, swim — just move! We can’t control our current situation, but we can control our actions. Make exercise a priority, and you will likely see every aspect of your life improve.”
Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
The old saying “You are what you eat” rings true — healthy food makes for a healthier body. “A well-balanced diet can help us stay on the preventative side of many medical conditions and build the foundation for a healthy immune system, making us less susceptible to infections,” says Anna Smith, a registered dietitian nutritionist for Kroger Health. Eating a nutritionally balanced diet is the clear-cut answer, and following the USDA’s MyPlate method is recommended.
Snacking plays a big part in our food consumption, too, especially when working from home means all-day access to the refrigerator and pantry. “The key to working from home is making sure to eat when you are hungry,” Anna says. “It’s really easy to fall into patterns of eating for reasons outside of hunger such as stress, boredom or habit.” She typically recommends pairing at least two food groups together for variety. A few examples are: Greek yogurt with blueberries, smashed avocado on whole-grain toast, pear with almond butter, low-sodium deli turkey rolled up in a high-fiber tortilla or a homemade protein smoothie.
While there’s no perfect food solution for building immunity or staving off the virus, the consensus is the more fruits and veggies, the better. “When it comes to fruit and vegetable consumption, the variety of color in produce is where the magic lies,” Anna tells us. “The different colors provide different vitamins and minerals. These phytonutrients are heavily studied for their protective qualities against inflammation and chronic disease. I recommend my clients consume half their plate with fruit and vegetables at all meals.” With that said, it’s clear that COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our food system, from grocery shopping and eating at our favorite restaurants to our ability to prepare in-home meals. “While I would love for everyone to boost their immune system with a colorful plate, I know that right now, that may not be possible,” Anna tells us. “During any shift or change in life, I recommend focusing on nourishing your body with available food choices. You can take comfort knowing that being fed is best, no matter what that looks like.”
Consider health supplements.
Vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc have all been shown to reduce healing time after infections and play a key role in building immunity, particularly to respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19. In fact, the National Institutes of Health published new evidence that suggests vitamin D plays a significant role in regulating the immune system, and studies also show that vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of respiratory illnesses. So, how do you get the appropriate amount of vitamin D? Turnip Truck’s Health & Beauty Department Manager, Jasmin Rosil says, “Most Americans do not get enough from sunlight alone, so supplementation is a great tool to help us get enough of this essential vitamin. One of our favorite brands for vitamin D is Natural Factors. They are family-owned, and stringent quality control ensures their products are pesticide-free and non-GMO.”
Before adding any supplements to your healthcare routine, it’s important to do plenty of research, talk to your trusted healthcare provider and remember that, as Jasmin puts it, “All supplements are not created equally. Choosing a supplement with healthy (not harmful) ingredients is paramount.” Not to mention, nutrition starts with your daily diet, so it’s important to remember that supplements are meant to do just that — supplement. They aren’t intended to take the place of vitamin- and mineral-rich foods, which you should obtain through fresh produce. “If you are eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other whole-nutrient sources, your multivitamin may be adequate,” offers Jasmin. “Consuming fresh and natural foods is the simplest, most complete way to lay the groundwork of daily nutrition.”
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Get a full night of sleep.
From physical to mental benefits, there are a lot of evident and indisputable advantages that come with a solid night of slumber. But did you know that immunity-boosting brain chemicals are also released while we sleep? Essentially, our bodies need sleep to fight off infection, and for the average person, this means a full seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
As we navigate a more stressful climate, our sleep routines tend to suffer. Dr. Beth Malow, Director at Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Center, suggests creating a consistent routine that allows for going to bed and waking up at similar times each day. She also believes in getting dressed every morning as if we’re going to work — goodbye, all-day pajamas! The idea is to support your sleep cycle by making sure your daytime and nighttime routines are independent of one another.
The fact is that setting ourselves up for a better night of sleep doesn’t require severe changes — one of the most impactful adjustments we can make is turning off electronics and limiting screen time — even if that’s not what we want to hear. Using our phones, tablets, computers and TVs before bed has the potential to delay the body’s internal clock and suppress the melatonin hormone that helps you sleep. Additionally, Dr. Malow suggests exercising during the day, rather than close to bedtime and limiting both caffeine and alcohol. Stress-relieving mindfulness meditations are also beneficial, especially given the heightened anxiety surrounding COVID.
Don’t ignore your mental health.
Being in shape is a whole-body affair, and we would be remiss to overlook the importance of mental health. Dr. Dana Verner, a mental health professional at Green Hills Family Psych, says, “Many people are surprised to learn just how strong the mind-body connection is — the health of our mind and body are inextricably intertwined. The same chemicals and hormones in the brain that affect the way we think and feel also affect our body and the way its systems function.”
Undoubtedly, stress is one of the biggest culprits affecting our everyday balance, especially during challenging times such as these. Feeling confusion, uncertainty and a loss of control can take more of a toll on our bodies than we even realize. Dr. Verner explains, “When we are under psychological stress, the brain releases chemicals and hormones that circulate throughout the body and have an impact on our nervous system, gastrointestinal system and immune system, just to name a few. Through a cascade of chemical reactions, stress reduces our body’s ability to fight infections and to heal itself. It can manifest as headaches, stomachaches, back pain and many other unpleasant bodily symptoms.” Thankfully, physical health can be improved by investing in mental wellness and making efforts to reduce stress.*
Since anxiety can slowly take its toll, we aren’t always fully aware of just how much stress we’re experiencing. Consequently, we should be taking daily steps to maintain a sense of calm and balance — whatever that might look like for each of us, be it meditation, running, painting, journaling, or any other activity that gives us a chance to recharge and reset. “If we ignore stress or don’t take steps to mitigate it, it can make us more susceptible to illness, including viruses like the novel coronavirus,” says Dr. Verner. Stress can also make it harder to recover from illness, so prevention is the best defense. Dr. Verner says that lowering stress levels can be as simple as creating a daily routine, which reduces uncertainty and the need for decision-making, and offers structure, familiarity and comfort.
Self-care takes many forms, and it’s at the epicenter of our wellness. Be it getting enough sleep, focusing on proper nutrition, exercising, taking health supplements, or finding a daily stress-release, our overall health depends on it. As Dr. Verner says, “Prioritizing self-care allows us to focus on what we can control during the chaos of pandemic life, rather than what we cannot.”
*It’s important to note that stress can become unmanageable despite our best efforts. If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Verner recommends reaching out for professional help from a counselor or therapist. “Thanks to the pandemic, telehealth restrictions have been lifted, and counseling is widely available and accessible in a safe way to those who need it,” she shares.
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