Healthy Immunity: The Dynamic Duo of Exercise and Diet

The immune system is your body’s defense against bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful substances. In other words, it helps you fight off and recover from illnesses and infections. Needless to say, the immune system plays a vital role in your general health.

So what can you do to maintain a healthy, well-functioning immune system?

Like many other body systems, the health of the immune system is directly tied to the way you treat your body. This means that you can take an active part in supporting healthy immunity with your lifestyle decisions.

This article focuses on two major ways to support the immune system: diet and exercise. Whether you’re looking for a detailed breakdown of the foods and nutrients that help maintain a healthy immune system or curious about the role that exercise plays in fighting off illness, you’re in the right place.

How Micronutrients Support the Immune System

If you’re looking to keep your immune system strong and healthy through your diet, your first step should be eating well-balanced, nutritious meals. The existing guidelines surrounding healthy eating exist for a reason: they provide a framework for getting your body the nutrients it needs to perform various functions, including building a strong immune system.

General nutrition is a topic for another article, so let’s assume that you are already eating a well-rounded diet that is rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. What’s next?

There are specific micronutrients—that is, vitamins and minerals—that are essential for immune function. And ensuring that you are consuming plenty of these vitamins and minerals will go along way for the immune system. Some of the most important micronutrients for the immune system include:

  • Vitamin A: The body’s first line of defense against foreign substances is epithelial tissue—a type of tissue that makes up the skin and other body linings. Vitamin A is necessary for the formation and maturation of epithelial cells, making it a vital part of your immune system’s defense. Vitamin A also plays a role in maintaining the health of various organs of the immune system and regulating immune cell function. Dietary sources of vitamin A include carrots, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and other yellow and orange vegetables.
  • Vitamin C: Often touted as the single most important vitamin for the immune system, vitamin C helps your body create antibodies and white blood cells—both of which help your body fight off infection. Natural sources of vitamin C include oranges and other citrus fruits, strawberries, and tomatoes.
  • Vitamin D: When pathogens enter your body, they are often destroyed by antimicrobial proteins. Vitamin D helps regulate these proteins, as well as other immune responses. Foods that are rich in vitamin D include fish, eggs, and dairy.
  • Vitamin E: Antioxidants are substances that help the body fight off toxins that can lead to a variety of health issues. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect the cell membranes of certain immune cells from oxidation, helping to regulate the function of your immune system. To introduce more vitamin E into your diet, eat more nuts, seeds, broccoli, and avocado.
  • Zinc: If your body gets injured, zinc can help the wound heal and repair. Zinc also helps your immune system respond to bacteria and viruses in your body. Sources of zinc in your diet may include meat, dairy, and nuts and seeds.
  • Iron: Your body needs iron to form new immune cells—specifically lymphocytes—which will, in turn, help protect your body from infection. Food sources of iron include red meat, beans, tofu, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, beef liver.

Supplementation and Immune Health

While all of the micronutrients listed above can be obtained through your diet, you can also help supplement your nutrient intake with multivitamins. If you are deciding whether or not to take an additional dietary supplements, there are a variety of factors to consider:

  • Dietary restrictions: If you adhere to a specific diet, such as a vegan diet, you may find it more difficult to obtain all of the necessary nutrients from food alone. In this case, a general multivitamin could help boost your immune system. The same is true if you have many food allergies or sensitivities that restrict the foods you can safely eat.
  • Risk groups: Certain groups of people, such as pregnant individuals and the elderly, may require additional nutrients to promote a strong immune system. If you think that you might fall into one such category, consult a doctor to decide how to best supplement your nutritional intake.
  • Recommended daily intake (RDI): All of the micronutrients listed above have an associated recommended daily intake, or RDI. This is the amount of each nutrient most people need each day to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you are not reaching those levels through your regular diet, you should either adjust what you are eating or start taking a daily multivitamin.

In addition to traditional multivitamins, there are also immune system specific dietary supplements. These supplements often include vitamin C, zinc, and other micronutrients that are also included in a traditional multivitamin. Depending on your own dietary needs, one might be better than the other.

Exercise and Immunity

While the ties between diet and immune function are well-researched and well-documented, the research surrounding exercise and immune function is a little bit more speculative. That is, it is a widely accepted fact that exercise does have a positive effect on immune function—what’s less agreed upon is why.

So, let’s get into it.

It is generally accepted that there is an inverse relationship between moderate, regular exercise and the risk of contracting illnesses. This means that as an individual’s rate of moderate exercise increases, their risk of contracting various illnesses may decrease. So, broadly speaking, more exercise leads to less sickness.

There are several theories as to why this is the case. Some researchers believe that exercise helps expel pathogens out of the body’s airways, decreasing the risk of contracting a cold, the flu, or other respiratory illnesses. Others believe the correlation is due to increased circulation, which causes white blood cells and other infection-fighting antibodies to circulate throughout the body at a faster rate. Another theory has to do with stress. When the body experiences stress, it can take a toll on immune function. Exercise, however, slows the release of stress hormones, which may alleviate some of the day-to-day strain on the immune system.

Regular exercise also helps maintain the health of vital organs, such as the lungs and heart. Individuals who are in good physical shape and regularly exercise often experience less severe symptoms and recover faster from respiratory illnesses than those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. For example, a 2020 study observed that active individuals who contracted the coronavirus tended to have less severe and shorter symptoms than inactive individuals. This study attributed these effects to increased circulation of antibodies and a variety of other factors.

What Kind of Exercise is Best for Immunity?

Because the ties between physical exercise and the immune system are still being explored, it is difficult to pinpoint specific exercises that support a healthy immune system. That said, there are general guidelines you can use to implement an exercise routine that will help bolster your immune system.

It is recommended that adults get around 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week—or 150 minutes of moderate exercise in total. This exercise could take the form of a brisk walk, a jog, or even a bicycle ride. The goal is to get your heartrate up—it doesn’t matter how you do it.

Hitting 150 minutes of exercise each week will help keep your heart and lungs healthy which, as mentioned above, will help your body fight off and recover from illness.

Healthy Lifestyle for Healthy Immunity

The immune system is complicated. It’s not a single body system but a variety of body systems working together to carry out all your immune functions. So, the way to support it isn’t to find one specific immune-boosting ingredient. It’s to live a healthier lifestyle and support your body overall. That’s why habits like exercise, diet, and even quality sleep are some of the most important habits to cultivate to maintain a healthy immune system. So, get some exercise, eat more vegetables, and start supporting your immune system by improving your overall health and wellness.