Every day we are bombarded by updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it impacts Americans’ health. As the number of cases continues to rise and the school year approaches, it is easy to fall prey to worrying about all the factors that are out of our control. Instead, we must focus on some essential solutions to help protect ourselves and our loved ones. In addition to eating a healthy diet, wearing a mask, social distancing, and handwashing, boosting our immunity by improving our fitness and getting enough high-quality sleep can go a long way toward keeping everyone well.
Your Body is Under Attack
Pathogen: a specific causative agent (such as a bacterium or virus) of disease. How these two types of organisms multiply inside our bodies differ. In the case of a bacterial infection, one bacterium splits and forms two identical bacteria, which become four and so on, quickly becoming a severe issue for your immune system to deal with. COVID-19 is a virus that replicates through a hostile takeover, invading a host cell within our body and using its cellular metabolism to multiply. Once a bacterial or viral infection starts spreading, our immune system goes on alert, distinguishing the pathogens from our healthy cells, and launches a defense. In this fight, the leading soldiers are a variety of white blood cells, some of which engulf infected cells and kill them through digestion. Other types produce antibodies that target and destroy specific pathogens.
Exercise Supports Immunity in 4 Ways
- As you exercise, your body heats up. This rise in temperature during and after physical activity creates an unfriendly environment, preventing bacteria from reproducing. Just as your body spikes a fever in response to an infection, you can mimic a similar physiological state through exercise. While not a direct defense against COVID-19, using training to help prevent bacterial illnesses leaves your immune system capable of fighting any viral threat.
- Performing fitness activities vigorously enough to raise your heart rate also increases respiration. Breathing harder in response to the body’s rising need for oxygen possibly expels bacteria from your nose and lungs. Keeping these airways clear may prevent illness such as cold, flu, or COVID from taking hold.
- By stimulating blood flow, exercise helps move white blood cells rapidly throughout the body, allowing them to detect pathogens sooner, generating an earlier immune response. Exercise may even contribute proactively by promoting good circulation, so the various immunity-oriented cells can do their jobs efficiently by flowing through the body freely.
- Cortisol is a stress hormone, released as part of our fight-or-flight survival response. In times of chronic stress, like the COVID pandemic is causing, prolonged elevated levels of cortisol may suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. How can exercise help? While initially, activity is perceived by the body as a form of stress, as fitness improves through regular exercise, the body becomes more adapted to physical stress. Less cortisol is released, which may protect against illness by reducing its immune system suppressing effect.
Regular aerobic exercise has the unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, which leads to our second simple solution, sleep.
Please get your ZZZs
To help us stay healthy, we must work to optimize our immune function and avoid factors that diminish immunity. Sleep plays a role in both. Exploring some answers to the following four “How” questions will help explain this role and provide some practical advice that you can implement today.
How does adequate sleep boost immunity?
Good sleep is an essential component of building up the body’s immunity and ensuring it operates at full capacity. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, dip while the body is asleep, reducing their negative impact on the immune system. Cytokines are proteins that facilitate communication among white blood cells, helping activate the immune system. When you have an infection or high levels of stress-specific cytokines need to increase to combat illness. These proteins are both produced and released during sleep.
Researchers compared white blood cells from healthy participants who either slept all night or stayed awake. They found that in the study volunteers who slept, their cells showed higher activation levels than those who were awake. These findings indicate that sleep has the potential to improve the function of disease-fighting cells.
In the fight against pathogens, including viruses, the body expends a lot of energy kicking the immune system into high gear, often leaving less energy for other activities. If you fall ill, getting more sleep is paramount to healing the body and conserving energy to fight disease.
How does the lack of sleep lower immunity?
Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep and sleep disturbances make the body more susceptible to illnesses. People who do not get adequate quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus.
Sleep deprivation decreases the production and release of protective cytokines, inhibiting the efficient deployment of white blood cells to find and eliminate viruses and bacteria. As a double-whammy, a reduction in infection-fighting antibodies and cells occurs during periods when sleep time is short.
For most adults, regularly sleeping less than seven hours per night has adverse effects. It essentially creates that fight-or-flight state of increased stress hormones, which we already know inhibit white blood cells’ ability to function effectively.
How much sleep do I need?
The amount of sleep you and your family members need to support immunity differs based mainly on their age.
- Infants (0-12 months) 14 to 15 hours
- Toddlers (1-3 years) 12 to 14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-6 years) 10 to 12 hours
- Elementary school (6-12 years) 10 to 11 hours
- High school (12-18 years) 8 to 9 hours
- Adults (18-65 years) 7 to 9 hours
- Seniors (65+ years) 7 to 8 hours
How can I get more restorative sleep?
Interestingly, exercise can help. As noted earlier, exercise raises your core body temperature. 30 to 90 minutes after exercise stops, the core body temperature starts to fall. This decline helps to facilitate sleepiness. Perform 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise during the day, and you should experience an improvement in sleep quality that night.
While many studies show a link between aerobic activity and sleep, picking an exercise you like will help you stick with it. For example, powerlifting or an active yoga class can elevate your heart rate, helping to create biological processes in the body and brain that contribute to better quality sleep.
If your sleep schedule is interrupted by a busy workweek or other factors, try to make up for the lost rest with naps. Taking two naps, no longer than 30 minutes each, helps decrease stress and offsets the harmful effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system. If you can’t swing a half-hour nap during the workday, try grabbing a 20-minute siesta on your lunch hour.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Taking charge of our immunity by getting regular exercise and enough sleep is more important than ever during this coronavirus pandemic. Anyone who has tried to create a new habit knows it takes focus and persistence. Unless you consciously decide you are going to make time for fitness and sleep, it is not just going to happen. When you say, “I don’t have time for that,” what you are actually saying is, “I’m not willing to prioritize that over something else.” No one is too busy to take care of their health; it is just a matter of priorities.