Working out and being active is good for your health…..right? It is thought that regular, moderate-intensity physical activity can help individuals stay healthy and prevent certain diseases. However, too much exercise can result in the opposite and have a negative impact on the immune system.
The immune system is made up of cells, tissues, and organs. It is the body’s natural defense system that helps protect the body from infection and illness. If the body’s defense system is running smoothly, we do not even notice it. However, if the immune system is compromised or weakened, your body is unable to fight off illness.
As athletes or active individuals, we need to remember that more is not always better. Overtraining can hinder immune function, leading to sickness, and therefore reduce performance. While it may seem that putting every spare minute available towards training is going to result in bigger gains, better performance, and being an overall better athlete, this is not the case. Overtraining not only causes increased muscle soreness, inability to sleep, depression, and increased injury, but it can also lead to a weakened immune system. To an athlete is detrimental.
When training hard and pushing your body to its limit, it is important to ensure that you are not only giving yourself enough recovery time, but also eating a well-balanced diet, avoiding excess stressors, and getting adequate sleep. There are many things we can do to ensure we are providing our body with what it needs to function properly. Below is a list of recommendations to ensure the immune system is well supported and functioning optimally.
This cannot be said enough! Sleep is crucial in recovery and allows the body to repair and grow. When you enter your deep sleep at night, there is increased blood supply to the muscles. With the extra blood flow, restorative oxygen is delivered to the muscles, which result in muscle growth and recovery. Sleep is also crucial to allow our immune systems to stay strong. In a study conducted on NBA players, athletes who received enough sleep had fewer injuries (by 60%) and less illness (by 54%).
By sleeping enough, we protect our bodies, like providing it with armour, to fight off illness and injury.
Managing stress is crucial in keeping your immune system strong. While some stress is unavoidable (and even beneficial), high amounts of stress can be detrimental to our bodies. High stress levels impact hormones and hormonal balance, therefore resulting in a weakened immune system. It is important to note the high stressors in our lives and find ways to cope and manage the stress. Sleep and rest are important (as mentioned above, 7 – 9 hours is recommended) however, there are other ways to cope with stress as well.
Managing time: Keep a journal, notebook, to do list, or planner to help you keep track of deadlines for work, school, family, training, etc. This will remind you of important deadlines and help you manage your time effectively.
Have a support system: Friends, family members, coworkers, classmates, and fellow athletes can all be a part of your team to ensure you have the encouragement and support needed for success.
Plan deload week: This gives you not only a physical break but also allows for a mental break.
Plan fun activities: Being motivated and hard-working is excellent but sometimes we just need to relax and get away from the stress and deadlines of work, school, competitions etc. Plan a day away from the gym without any distractions from work and have fun! De-stress!
Nutrition is key to the success of any athlete or gym-goer. Athletes need to make sure they are eating enough so they have the energy to workout and recover. Proper macronutrient breakdown (fats, carbohydrates, proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) not only keep you healthy but help your immune system stay strong. While many athletes know they need to bulk up on protein they often forget about the imporatance of carbohydrates.
One study suggested that “carbohydrate ingestion attenuates some aspects of detrimental changes of the immune response during prolonged exercise”. This is partially due to the fact that ingesting carbs reduces circulating cortisol and delays symptoms of overreaching during high intensity or long training sessions. By consuming higher carbs (30-60g per hour of sustained intensive activity), the stress hormones are reduced, limiting the degree of immune depression. (Gleeson M., Nieman D., Pedersen B. (2004) Exercise, nutrition and immune function. Journal of Sports Sciences 22(1), 115-125.)
One way to ensure you are eating enough carbohydrates to fuel your body is to track what you eat. I use My Fitness Pal to log what I eat and base it off specific percentages of macronutrients. By logging food, you will also be able to see where you may be lacking in other areas (example – protein and fat, fiber, vitamins, iron etc.) as well as where you may be eating too much (e.g. sugar).
My go to carbohydrates to fuel my training are oatmeal, rice, potatoes, and fruit. I start off every day with a bowl of oatmeal. I add in protein powder for flavour (I use ON Protein Energy in the Cinnamon Bun Flavour) as well as berries and bananas for some extra carbs, and my favorite peanut butter – Nuts N More, for some healthy fats.
While you can get a lot of micronutrients from real foods, when you are training hard your body requires more nutrients to get the job done. A good multi vitamin containing vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12 are especially important to the performance of athletes and is a great base to start with. Below are some additional nutrients that have been shown to help keep your immune system strong.
B Complex: is important to ensure optimal energy production as well as the repair and building of muscle tissues.
Vitamin C: important to help increase resistance against pathogens and improve the immune system.
Vitamin D: associated with preventing infectious diseases. It is important when it comes to activating immune defenses.
Zinc: crucial in the growth, building, and repair of muscle tissue but also in immune status. Diets that lack animal protein and fiber typically tend to be associated with lower zinc levels.
Extra Credit: Probiotics, glutamine, and echinacea are also thought to help with immunity, as well as digestion and gut health.
As athletes, we need to ensure we do not just focus and contribute success to the time spent training. What we do before and after training is equally, if not more important. First, we always need to listen to our body. If you are feeling excessively tired or sore, more so than after a normal training session, it is likely you need an extra rest day. Your body will thank you for it! We also need to ensure we eat a nutrient-rich diet to meet all our macronutrient and micronutrient needs. Despite everyone having different limits, there is a point at which everyone can become overly stressed and the immune system can take a hit.
About Your Author
Rachel Hendry has a Bachelor’s of Kinesiology, is a CSEP Certified Personal Trainer, Crossfit Level 1 Trainer, Kettlebell Instructor and member of #TeamReflex. An Olympic Lifter you can find her training at Kilophile weightlifting club, where she is pushing herself to qualify for nationals at the 63KG level.
When she’s not lifting you can find Rachel working as a skate instructor for the City of Surrey.
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