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Exercises for your immune system

Reading time: 7 minutes

The immune system is the body’s natural defense mechanism, but it’s also vital for healing and rebuilding. By understanding how it shapes the boundaries between the outside world and our internal landscape, we can support our body’s most effective response to threat and danger.

This is pertinent now more than ever with the COVID-19 pandemic, but immunity is something that always needs to be paid attention to, especially if you have underlying health issues such as respiratory, inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, heart disease or metabolic issues like diabetes.

Crucially, the immune system is intimately linked with the nervous, digestive, fascial, lymphatic, hormonal, integumentary (skin) and other body systems, so it’s essential to look at it holistically and address the entire body and mind in order to support it.

Exercise for immunity
Movement and exercise can help support immunity in a number of ways – for starters by lowering stress hormone levels. Stress is a protective response to a perceived danger; this can be a real physical threat in the here and now or may be worry or trauma over what could happen in the future or what has happened in the past.

When the body is constantly on high alert, it can have a detrimental effect on the nervous, endocrine, digestive and immune systems.

Mindful movement is an excellent way to give these systems a break by bringing awareness back to the body and the present moment, reducing anxiety and stress. These systems need to have periods of rest where they can come down from heightened states to build back up again and not simply get stuck on overdrive, as is the case for people with allergies and autoimmune conditions, for example.

Indeed, while many people talk of “boosting” the immune system, immune modulation is what we really need – not too much, not too little, but just the right amount at the right time with the relevant reaction.

Stress and inflammation
Chronic stress contributes to inflammation in the body. Persistent low-grade inflammation can take up much of the body’s energy resources and interfere with its natural defenses against invaders. Consequently, it sits at the root of many chronic diseases.

Inflammation is an important part of the adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight response. In the short term, this stress response causes an immune system boost to activate inflammation in order to stop you from bleeding to death if wounded and to bring immune components to the site where bacteria and other invaders could enter the bloodstream.

You wouldn’t want to be without it if you were injured in the wild, but it can overwhelm other systems when it’s overreacting.

In addition to inflammation, stress creates tight, shallow breathing locked into the chest and shoulders, rather than relaxed breathing into the diaphragm and belly. The movements on the following pages encourage mobility into the lower and mid-torso, allowing the breathing to drop back down, which can in turn help to bring down heightened nervous and immune responses.

These movements can also help release tension in the body that can be felt in times of stress, which can show up as back or shoulder pain, for example.

The lymphatic system
As well as helping to reduce stress and inflammation, exercise is also beneficial for the lymphatic system, a network of tissues and organs that functions as the body’s waste disposal system.

Immune function relies heavily on the efficiency of the lymphatic system, so keeping this system healthy can help to support the immune response. Indeed, swelling of lymphatic nodes in the neck, throat, armpits and groin is one sign there’s something up with the immune system.

Lymphatic fluid (lymph) delivers foreign and toxic agents to these sites, where they are killed and destroyed. Overburdened lymph nodes can prevent us from effectively dealing with other invaders that come our way, like bacteria and viruses.
While blood is always being pumped out from the heart to the periphery of the body, lymph moves inward. Unlike the blood, with the heart as pump, lymph can’t move unless we do. So sedentary habits mean stagnation of lymphatic fluid and compromised immunity.

Keeping body tissues pliable is an important part of immune health. Movement at the diaphragm, hips, shoulders and neck supports lymphatic movement and drainage and ultimately how the body breaks down and removes unwanted visitors. It also supports gut health, as there are important lymphatic sites (Peyers patches) in the gut lining, between the cells.

Going slow
When it comes to exercise, many think that the harder and faster, the better. But this doesn’t tally with how homeostasis – the balance within body systems – works for our self-regulation.

We do need aerobic activity, but we also need movement that helps us tune in to our nervous system and when we might be creating stress that ultimately depletes body function. We also need a variety of movement patterns – of different paces, directions, etc. – to release tension that might be created from running, cycling or strength training.

Just because something is soft and gentle doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. Take tai chi, the ancient Chinese technique that involves deep breathing and slow, flowing movements. A study that looked at the effects of tai chi on markers for immune health, stress levels, blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) found great improvements over 10 weeks of practice, along with increased physical fitness and strength.1

Several studies have found yoga to effectively lower markers of inflammation in the body. According to one review, “Yoga can be a viable intervention to reduce inflammation across a multitude of chronic conditions.”2

It isn’t simply the physicality of these practices that supports immunity, but also the way they act as “moving meditations.” In fact, yoga and other mindfulness-based stress-reduction practices have been found to improve the body’s response to stress.3

The movements on the following pages draw from yoga and tai chi to create a mindful sequence designed to reduce stress and anxiety, boost the lymphatic system and help support immunity.

Home movement sequence for immunity
This sequence starts on the ground to enable loosening of the tissues without the full effects of gravity, then moves to strengthening and restorative standing poses to ease the flow of blood to the heart and encourage lymphatic movement. Ending by positioning the hips above the head further aids the lymphatic flow, which relies on our movement and gravity, by allowing fluids that can easily pool into the legs to move back up the body.

All fours
• From all fours, move in any way that feels good through the shoulders, hips, neck and ribs. Also move your face and jaw, letting out any sighs, yawns, noises or other expressions of nervous system release that feel good.
• From all fours, rotate the tailbone for a few minutes in each direction, feeling how this loosens tissues in the pelvic floor, diaphragm, throat and back of the skull.

All-fours leg lifts
• Lift the legs one at a time to explore any free movement, letting the elbows bend as needed to be able to move through all planes available from the places you are rooted. There is no right or wrong here; just feel y
our body letting you know what it needs.

Downward-facing dog
to “puppy pose”
• Lengthen out the spine by pushing back and up from open palms to downward-facing dog. Keep the heels as high as you need to open the front body between the breastbone and the pubic bone.
• Drop your knees to beneath the hips, to rest your head and elbows on the ground. This position is also a softer alternative to downward-facing dog.

Curling up and down to standing
• Walk your hands back into a squat with the heels up, curled into a vertical fetal position. From there, bring your heels down and hands off the ground to curl upward to standing.
• Move up and down several times before coming to standing with feet hip-width apart.

Swinging twist
• Between all of the standing movements, loosen tissues around the central body and diaphragm.
• With soft knees and hands like weights at the ends of the arms, swing the arms around the midline of the body, feeling the movement come from the belly.

Standing spine undulations
• From standing with knees bent, exhale to curl into your front body while reaching the arms forward; inhale to draw the arms back and open the front body.
• Keep your knees bent to allow movement and even squat down lower on the exhale if comfortable for your knees.

Wide horse stance undulation
• Step into a wide-legged stance, feet turned out about 45° from the center.
• Inhale to come up, as you open out your arms, exhale to lean your torso forward, taking your arms in the shape of a large ball around the head.
• Engage your belly as you lengthen your tailbone away from the crown of your head.
• Move between the two positions, gathering up through the belly as you inhale back up.

Wide horse stance arm sweep
• From the wide stance, begin by sweeping both hands in semicircles side to side as far as shoulder height.
• Reach one arm across the body so both arms extend to one side, then bring that arm up and away from the other, holding the space around the ear.
• Sweep it back, and then swing both arms all the way to the other side and open up there, moving side to side.

Wide stance twist
• Place your fingers onto the ground or a chair with feet parallel, as wide as is comfortable for your knees.
• Explore shifting your weight side to side and deeply bending one leg, lifting that heel.
• Begin to lift the arm on the same side as the bent leg, reaching with a bent arm for ease through the shoulder as you move side to side.

Supported full inversion
• Support the lower back fully and comfortably with a bolster or stack of towels, with the lower legs able to fully drop onto a chair seat.
• Close your eyes to move inward and feel your breath and heart rate naturally slow down.

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1 Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2018; 2018: 6351938
2 Biol Res Nurs, 2019; 21: 198-209
3 Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2017; 86: 152-68

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