With colds, flu, and COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to ensure your immune system is able to fight off the respiratory viruses making the rounds this winter.
Your best defense against getting sick? Living a healthy lifestyle, according to Dr. David Goldberg, an internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester. “While genetics play a role in how well our immune systems function, our everyday habits have a major influence,” Dr. Goldberg says. “So there’s plenty of room for improvement.”
But which healthy habits make the biggest difference? Health Matters spoke with Dr. Goldberg about the lifestyle changes you can make to boost your immunity.
Get Enough Sleep
Why it’s important: “Sleep is when the magic happens; it’s when the whole system of the body is revitalized,” Dr. Goldberg says. The rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep is particularly important. Case in point: People with sleep apnea — a disorder in which you wake up before the REM cycle — have higher rates of memory problems, mood disorders, heart disease, and possibly cancer.
Try this: Stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time every day, aiming for six to eight hours of sleep, Dr. Goldberg suggests. Also, avoid alcohol and screen time before bedtime because they can disrupt sleep. “The blue light makes the brain think it’s daytime and can make it harder to fall asleep,” he says.
Why it’s important: Cortisol, the stress hormone, suppresses the immune system and disrupts other parts of your lifestyle, like how you eat — you’re more likely to reach for unhealthy foods when stressed — and how you sleep. “Your sleep can be negatively affected by anxiety and racing thoughts brought on by stress,” says Dr. Goldberg.
Try this: Pick a stress-reducing activity like meditation, listening to music, or going for a walk, and set aside time to do it every day, even if it’s just for 10 to 30 minutes. “When so much that happens in life feels like it’s outside of our control, this is something you can do for yourself daily to help your immune system and your mental health,” says Dr. Goldberg.
Why it’s important: Aerobic exercise has been linked to a more effective immune system, not to mention it reduces stress and relieves depression. “People who are aerobically fit tend to get sick less often than people who don’t exercise regularly,” says Dr. Goldberg.
Try this: Current government guidelines suggest adults get 150 minutes of heart-pumping moderate aerobic exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of intense exercise (think jogging, cycling, or swimming) a week. That can feel more manageable if you break it down.
For example, you could take a brisk 30-minute walk on your lunch break from Monday to Friday to get to 150 minutes, or jog for less than 40 minutes a day twice a week to get to 75 minutes. “It doesn’t matter how you choose to mix it up,” says Dr. Goldberg. “It takes less time than you may think to create a meaningful impact on your health.” Not only are you boosting your immunity, you’re also improving your cardiovascular health, lowering your blood pressure, and helping control your weight, among a host of other healthy outcomes.