Strengthen your immune system; the role of stress and exercise

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (15)

There is a lot of talk lately about how to protect yourself from germs.  Certainly washing your hands and staying away from people who are sick is at the top of the list.    The irony however is that all this talk about preventing illness is causing a lot of stress and anxiety, putting the body in a state that is lowering defenses against the illnesses we are concerned about. Exercise, when used correctly, is the antidote to the stress response. It puts your body back in a state where it can defend against illnesses.  

When you are in a stress response, your body makes changes to protect you from immediate danger. It down-regulates the not so urgent work, such as digestion, repair and healing, and puts energy into getting ready to take care of the ‘threat’.  The way we are hardwired to defend against stress is to move, in order to fight or flee the problem.  All the things that happen in your body when you are stressed is to prepare you to move so you can fight or run away from the ‘threat’.  Basically, when you are stressed your body puts less effort into defending against illness and more effort into preparing to move.  Do you see the problem with this stress response in our modern day life?

Because most of our stressors are not helped by fighting or fleeing, and we have many constant underlying stressors, we can be in a chronic state of ‘ready to move’, rather than ready to defend against illness. We only add to that when it is stressful to get enough exercise, or we make exercise more stressful than it needs to be.  

Several studies show that you only need to do moderate intensity exercise, five days a week for about 20 minutes to enjoy a 40% reduction in upper respiratory infections. (This is even after they adjusted for factors such as age, marital status, gender, body mass index (BMI), and perceived mental stress.)

To use exercise correctly in order to help your immune system stay strong:

  • Listen to your body.  Do the amount, type and intensity that is just right for your body. When exercise is exhaustive, it can actually lower immune system function.   If exercise makes you feel better mentally and physically, (and not just because it is ‘over with’) you know you have found the right level.
  • Be consistent.  Something done regularly is much better than a large amount of exercise done once in a while. That’s because the way exercise strengthens your immune system lasts for about a day and improves as fitness levels improve.
  • Make it stress reducing.  You would not go for a pedicure or out for an expensive dinner with the mindset you just need to ‘get through it’, would you? Treat your exercise time like you would any other self-care activity.  When you set it up to be a treat, and your stress level is most likely to dissolve as you restore a relaxed state where your immune system can do its job.

Regular exercise is an important strategy for each of us, especially now. How you exercise makes all the difference in how well it reduces stress so your immune system can help you stay healthy and well.

Keep Moving, Be Well,

Janet

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by | March 10, 2020 · 6:59 pm

Ready? Set? Spring!

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (14)

This weekend, we turn the clocks ahead, which means more daylight at the end of the day.  This is awesome news for those of you who (like me) crave outdoor time and feel more energy to move when the days are longer.

Before we jump into Spring, there is an important question that will make next Winter easier to manage.

What was your biggest takeaway from your exercise routine this past Winter? 

It does not matter if you exercised or not, there is still some great information to be gained by asking this question right now when it is fresh in your mind.

Take a moment right now to write down what worked well and what you want to do differently next Winter.  Tuck it away in your calendar for October 2020.   When the days get shorter, I will remind you to pull out that list and we will make a plan for your Spring Training 2021.

If your Spring Training did not go as planned this past Winter, forgive yourself, learn from what happened, and then give your body time to adapt before jumping into all the Springtime activities.

If your Spring Training went well this past Winter, get out there and enjoy the benefits of your dedication this past Winter.

Either way, keep learning about how to keep moving all year long.

Keep Moving, Be Well,

Janet

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by | March 4, 2020 · 4:59 pm

How can I exercise to lose weight when moving is painful?

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (11)Many people want to lose weight because their body is in pain and are hoping weight loss will help. They know eating right and exercising are keys to weight loss, but when movement is painful, it seems even more overwhelming to lose weight.    If this catch 22 sounds familiar, let’s take a closer look to find how you can exercise  even when you are dealing with pain issues.  Ironically, it is not about pushing through pain to get to your goal weight. Here is why:

  1. Pain is complex and involves signals from the brain. The level of pain does not equal the level of injury, or any injury at all.   Evidence of this came from the fact that people who had a limb amputated still had pain in that part of their body. Its called Phantom Pain and inspired neurosciences to investigate the source of pain symptoms.
  2. Usually, pain is a signal from your body to your brain to tell you there is something wrong and it needs your attention. However, acute (initial) pain and chronic (long term) pain are different and need to be treated differently.
  3. The term “good sore” does not make any sense.   There is absolutely no evidence that muscles need soreness to get stronger, nor that when you are sore you are burning more calories, fat or making more progress.  Muscle soreness is only a sign of doing too much too soon.

The first thing to remember about pain is that it creates a ‘negative habit loop’ for your brain about exercise.  That means, if exercise leads to pain, it is much more likely your brain will start making excuses why you cannot exercise.  Pushing your body to do more than it is ready to do, only gets you more stuck.

The irony here is that when you learn to listen to your body and work with it, you end up exercising in a way your body and your brain can do long term.  That consistency with exercise that leaves you feeling better in your body, rather than worse, and is the way exercise will help you with weight loss and health.

The details of how to do that depends on many factors including where you have pain, how long you have had it for and the cause of the pain.

If it is arthritis pain, you need to find the sweet spot of moving often enough so your joints don’t stiffen up from lack of movement, but not doing so much that it increases inflammation and causes more pain.

If it is an autoimmune illness like fibromyalgia, starting at a much lower level that what you think you should do, and using a slower progression is the way to work with your body.  Also knowing different types of exercise you can do for different stages of the illness.  For example, stretching during a flare up so you maintain mobility and help lower inflammation.

If it is back pain, knowing how your core is designed to function is essential for moving in a way that reduces your pain.

The specifics here are beyond the scope of this blog, but the overarching message is to listen to your body by using mindfulness; presence with kindness.  Starting with that mindset, you will be more willing to listen to your body and give it what it needs to help calm the pain signals.

Living with pain is not easy, to put it mildly.  Thankfully there is so much great new information from scientific research that has given us a better understanding about pain.  The more you understand your body, and the more self compassion you can have for the situation you are in right now,  the better you will be able to move away from pain and toward more comfort and function in your body.   For all of you in this situation, please know exercising without pain is possible.  I have seen it happen over and over again. Stay curious, mindful and most importantly be kind to yourself.  

Keep moving, be well

Janet

 

 

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by | February 26, 2020 · 4:58 pm

Spring Training Check In: What direction are you heading?

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (10)

In November, we started Spring Training.  Staying active and consistently exercising through the winter is challenging.  It becomes more motivating when you realize you are doing it for a purpose, like to enjoy the activities you like to do on that first beautiful Spring day.

With are only five weeks until the first official day of Spring, it’s time to check in. Which direction are you heading in?  Are you on the path to a Spring that starts with soreness and limitations or are you on the path to a Spring that allows you to do the activities you need and want to do with ease?

If your motivation has taken you off the path to an easy and enjoyable time in Spring, lets renew your energy for Spring Training.

Close your eyes and fast forward to the first beautiful day in Spring.  Ask yourself the following:

  • What do I want to be able to do in Spring?
  • How do I want to feel?
  • What do I need to do that activity – more strength, stamina,  mobility?
  • What is one thing I can do starting today that will tell my body to build more of that over the next five weeks?

The great news is, exercise does not need to take a lot of time, it only needs to be done consistently and your body will adapt.  Starting your day with one set of an exercise that you know will improve your strength.  Taking five to ten minutes before dinner to dance or walk.   Before going to bed each night doing that one stretch that you know feels so good.  These are so small you might think they are not worth it, but think again.  It’s the natural laws of nature that they will work.   Just like snow is designed to melt at a certain temperature, your body is designed to adapt to what you give it.   Let it know you  are in Spring Training and it will keep you on a path to a more enjoyable season ahead.

Keep Moving, Be Well, Think Spring!

Janet

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by | February 11, 2020 · 8:58 pm

How can exercise keep your immune system strong?

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (9)

Cold and flu season are in full swing. With news stories of worldwide of flu rates, you are probably trying to do the extras to stay healthy this season.   Here is how exercise can help keep your immune system strong.

How does exercise help your immune system protect you from illness?

Some of these theories according to Medline Plus are:

  • Exercise may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness.
  • Exercise causes change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body’s immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. However, no one knows whether these changes help prevent infections.
  • The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature rise may help the body fight infection better. (This is similar to what happens when you have a fever.)
  • Exercise slows down the release of stress hormones. Some stress increases the chance of illness. Lower stress hormones may protect against illness.

How much is enough exercise to help keep your immune system strong? 

This study found that just twenty minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise was enough to have significant improvements in immune system function by having an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.  Some studies show that exercising over an hour or exercising to exhaustion can actually lower the immune systems ability to fight off those germs you are encountering every day.  Moderate intensity is the amount that feels comfortable, not uncomfortable,  for your breathing.

How does exercise help you recover well from illness?

Even if you do end up with a cold or flu, exercise is an important part of ensuring your body gets back to its usual functioning level as soon as possible.  When you are recovering from an illness, bed rest is needed.  During bed rest your body can lose up to 12% of its strength per week. Your connective tissue, bone and cardiovascular system all lose function during that time too.  Getting back to a regular exercise routine helps you regain what you have lost so your body can make a full recovery and your immune system can bounce back quicker.  When you restart exercise, start at less than 50% of what you were doing before you got sick.    Most importantly, listen to your body!  If it increases fatigue, cut it back even more.   If it gives you energy and makes you feel better you know you found the right ‘starting dose’ of exercise to help your recover.  Increase by about 10% per week, and continue to listen to your body. 

Bottom Line:  A simple lunchtime walk or family dance party before dinner could be all you need to use exercise as part of the ways you stay well this season.  Exercise does not need to be complicated or fatiguing, just consistent so those everyday germs don’t stand a chance in your healthy and well body.

Keep moving, Be well!

Janet

 

 

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by | February 5, 2020 · 7:31 pm

Stretching: Three benefits you may not know (part 3)

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (8)

In part 1 of this series on Stretching; the three benefits you may not know, we discussed how stretching helps the lymph system do its job to help your immune system function. This makes stretching one of the best ways to reduce the effects of sitting for too long.  In part 2, we reviewed the fascia system and it’s effect on your whole body and your mind.  Stretching then becomes a way to help your body feel less stiff while improving whole person health.  In this last part, let’s take a look at how the effects of stretching on your nervous system can lead to more comfort, less pain and more freedom of movement.  

The nervous system is what controls muscles. When a muscle is tight, it is your nervous system trying to protect your muscles from tearing. A muscle spasm is when your nervous system has to take extreme measures to protect a muscle that is holding a lot of tension. The spasm happens to prevent it from tearing. That spasm is not the result of that one movement, but rather the accumulation of tightness over time. The movement that resulted in a spasm was the final straw, so to speak. Regular stretching helps to keep that tightness from accumulating.  

When you stretch regularly, you are helping your nervous system build up tolerance of movements, so it is less “hyper-protective” of the muscles.  

Nervous systemThe way to get this benefit though goes against the way you may have been taught to stretch in the past.  The word stretching implies you are stretching a muscle like a piece of cloth, and the more you pull the more the muscle will relax.  Because the nervous system is in a large part what is ‘allowing’ the muscle to ‘stretch’ or not, pulling harder means your nervous system needs to go into that ‘hyper-alert’ mode to protect the muscle from injury.

We now know that starting with a gentle stretch and only going into a light to moderate stretch sensation is more likely to result in relaxing a muscle.  Stretching to a point of pain or discomfort can have the opposite effect of what you are trying to do by stretching.

This means, paying attention to how you feel when you are stretching, and listening to your body is the way to get the most from stretching.  When you do a stretch mindlessly, quickly or forcefully, you lower the quality of the stretch and thus waste your time. Rethink stretching as a way to help your body restore and recharge so it becomes a way to reduce the stress in your mind that is held in your body.  Sprinkle your day with stretch breaks to avoid that accumulation, and you raise the quality of your movement breaks while gaining more freedom of movement in daily life.  

Keep Moving, Be Well,

Janet

 

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by | January 28, 2020 · 4:28 pm

Stretching: Three benefits you may not know (part 2)

How to get enough exercise in the busy seasons of your life (6)

In the last blog, we covered how stretching helps your Lymph System function, which helps your immune system reduce the effects of being still and stressed.  The second benefit of stretching you may not know about is its effects on the Fascia System.   Fascia is the connective tissue that extends to every structure of the body. It intertwines and surrounds all organs, muscles, bones and nerve fibers, and enables all body systems to communicate with one another to maintain health of the body and mind.(1)

fascia

Fascia responds to mechanical forces, meaning it changes with how you hold your body during the day. It even changes with your emotions!  The above image is from a video called Strolling Under the Skin, that shows what this connective tissue looks like and how it changes with movement (this is a two-minute clip of a longer video also available for viewing). I find it helpful to hold the image of this webbing connecting the whole body when stretching. It is a reminder that when you stretch one area, you are not just stretching a muscle, you are restoring and re-connecting your whole-person.  

The important point is that fascia is always changing and adapting to what is happening in your body and brain moment by moment. Stretching helps the fascia restore its elasticity instantly, leaving you feeling more comfortable, free to move easier. The effects seem to last for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, which is another reason why stretching is best done as movement breaks through your day.  

In addition we are just beginning to understand the importance of the cells in the fascia system for our health, immune system function, and mental well-being.  Stretching is one of the most accessible ways to help your fascia system, and thus your whole body.  

Take a stretch break now, in a way that feels good (not painful), and notice the effects on your whole-person. There is still so much more we do not know about this system in the body. As I learn more, I will share it here on Keep Moving Weekly. In the mean time, keep taking those stretch breaks knowing the effects stretch way beyond your muscles.

Keep Moving, Be Well,

Janet

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by | January 22, 2020 · 6:19 pm