By Leah Zerbe, MS, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES
While forgetting to wash your hands, touching your face and smoking are major no-nos, there are a number of other, less-talked-about ways that people can adversely affect their immune system function.
1. Too Much Sitting
The average American now spends a minimum of 6 to 8 hours a day in a sedentary state — most often watching TV and behind a computer or phone.
Too much sitting doesn’t just put you at risk for problems like weight gain and posture problems — it’s now considered to be as dangerous as smoking. While other studies need to be conducted, a 2012 study in a noted health journal found that being chronically sedentary can negatively impact immune system health and function.
If working at a computer, stand up and do 10 to 20 sit-to-stand squats at least once every hour.
Aim to get out for walks as often as possible. Bonus points for “forest bathing” by walking in forests or parks.
- Work gentle yoga into the mix, focusing on grounding postures like Mountain Pose, Warrior II, Child’s Pose and Corpse Pose.
Having a pessimistic mindset can actually mess with your immunity. An often-cited major study found people with a more positive mindset experienced a more robust immune system response overall, although more studies need to be conducted.
Adopting a gratitude-filled lifestyle isn’t just about rainbows and unicorns, either. Recent studies indicate that gratitude is a great health supporter.
- Be prepared for what life throws at you, but don’t panic.
- Write down three things you’re grateful for — and hopeful for — every morning. Corny? Maybe. Beneficial? Absolutely.
- Think about people who bring a lot of light to your life. Send them a note letting them know they make a positive difference in your life.
Fear signals danger to our bodies, setting up a fight, flight or freeze response that can send a shockwave through the body, including one’s immune system.
Here’s what the body typically does in the “fight or flight” response:
- Slow (or shut) down non-essential functions we don't need for immediate survival, such as digestion.
- Sharpen things we may need in an emergency, like eyesight, increased heart rate and blood flow to run fast.
- Provide higher hormone flow to amygdala part of the brain to focus on danger.
But most of us aren't being chased by a lion, so this response, when chronic, can adversely affect the body, including the immune system.
- Be aware, but don’t be fearful.
- Use prayer or meditation for focus and faith.
- Retrain your body for diaphragmatic breathing. Fear can prompt shallow chest breathing, which further recruits our fight-flight-or-freeze response.
- Spend 15 breaths in Crocodile (see below) to naturally support your body’s relaxation response.
- Lie face down. Fold your arms, each hand on the opposite elbow, and draw the forearms in so that the chest is slightly off the floor, with the forehead resting on crossed arms. Keep the legs together, or separate them a comfortable distance with the toes turned in or out, whatever feels best in your body.
- Close your eyes. Relax the legs, abdomen and shoulders. Soften the eyes and jaw. Turn your attention to the breath. Feel the cleansing qualities of each exhalation and the rejuvenating effects of each inhalation.
- As you center here, visualize your diaphragm muscle, a dome-shaped muscle located just below the lungs and heart. Breathing in, envisioning the diaphragm drawing down toward the belly like a parachute, feeling the belly rise and ribs expand on each inhale, and letting it all go on the exhale.
- Breathing through the nose if comfortable; notice the qualities of your breath. Is it smooth, continuous without jerkiness? Deep without effort? Inhalations and exhalations about the same length?
- Center here for about 15 breaths. Invite the qualities of the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest response of your nervous system.
While too much sitting certainly impairs the immune system, the other extreme — overexercising — can do the same. Signs of overtraining include swelling and fatigue that doesn’t go away after bouts of training.
A classic way to know if you are overtraining is this: You train vigorously, yet performance deteriorates.
Overall, when you’re exercising too intensely for too long, it can directly and adversely affect the immune system.
- Try to schedule more walks or hikes into your training schedule. Download a nature-focused app and use it to identify new plant, insect and animal species as you explore. It’ll slow you down and help you connect with nature, which can be beneficial to the immune system
- Avoid long bouts of intense cardio, and make sure to make time for gentle yoga. Try this restorative posture…
Legs Up the Wall
- To begin, roll a towel to about 3 to 4 inches in diameter.
- Then, sit with one hip against the wall and your rolled towel nearby.
- Carefully roll onto your back as you swing your legs up the wall.
- Find a comfortable distance from the wall so your legs can easily rest on it.
- Bend your knees and place your feet on the wall so you can lift your hips enough to place the roll under your pelvis there.
- Then rest your pelvis on the roll and extend your legs up the wall to relax there.
- Stay for 3 to 5 minutes, using your exhalations to help relax.
5. Alcohol Overuse
Consistent alcohol overuse is not beneficial for health overall, including immune system health, so it’s best to not overdo it. In fact, for some, it’s best to avoid alcohol consumption altogether.
- An occasional glass of organic red wine isn’t generally problematic, but some people may not stop there, while others should avoid alcohol consumption altogether.
- Replace alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic alternatives like kombucha, organic green tea, coconut water and pomegranate juice.
- Mix up a mocktail, like the one below...
Bloody Mary Mocktail Recipe
- 8 ounces of an organic vegetable juice (with tomato juice as first ingredient)
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ½ teaspoon horseradish
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- ⅛ teaspoon celery salt
- ⅛ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 dashes of fresh cracked pepper
- 1 celery stick
- Pickled okra
- Lemon wedge
- Combine vegetable juice, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, turmeric, celery salt and olive oil in a glass and mix well.
- Add desired ice cubes and stir again.
- Top with cracked black pepper and garnish of your choice.
- Enjoy your mocktail!
Dehydration can do a number on your body’s overall health, so stay hydrated. While it’s easily said, for some, it can still be tough to hit hydration goals on the daily.
- Download a water-tracking app on your phone to remind and inspire you to get enough water.
- Opt for filtered tap water instead of bottled water. It’ll save you money and more.
- While not appropriate for everyone, a good rule of thumb is to aim to drink half your body weight in ounces daily. So if you weigh 200 pounds, aim for 100 ounces.
- Don’t be afraid to add slices of citrus fruits like lemons and oranges.
Loneliness has been shown to, at least indirectly, negatively affect the immune system.
Use technology (such as FaceTime or Skype) to connect with loved ones who are living alone or are lonely. It can not only make their day, but may be helpful to their immune system health, too.
If you’re isolated and need to connect, voice chat services are available, too.
- Join an online book club or start one of your own.
With an B.A. in journalism from Temple University and a M.S. in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania, Leah Zerbe covers health news and functional fitness topics. She’s also a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and is a certified yoga teacher through Yoga Alliance. Leah resides on her family’s organic farm in Pennsylvania.