Runner in a city park takes a break for some water.


Boosting Immunity Through Diet and Exercise

June 8, 2020

Through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we know that patients with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes—which can be impacted by diet and exercise—are at higher risk for COVID-19 and possibly other potential infections. Research has also shown that consistent healthy eating and exercise can fight inflammation and improve immune system response, a welcome benefit in 2020, when immunity is top of mind for everyone.

To learn more, The Box connected with School of Health Professions nutrition expert Mindy Haar, Ph.D., RDN, clinical associate professor and department chair of interdisciplinary health sciences, and exercise expert Alexander Rothstein, M.S., instructor of interdisciplinary health sciences who’s heading up New York Tech’s new B.S. in Exercise Science program. Together, they explained how individuals can incorporate sound dietary and fitness guidelines for improved immunity and overall well-being.

How can simple actions like making better food choices and finding time to exercise help to ward off illnesses like COVID-19?

MH: While research is increasing our understanding of COVID-19 and is being conducted and published daily, nutrition and exercise can optimize our ability to fight off this dreaded disease. Our goal is to improve our immune system and reduce inflammation through any possible lifestyle changes. Individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity are at higher risk for COVID-19 due to the associated increased inflammation. Lifestyle changes that lead to even moderate changes in weight, blood pressure, and blood glucose can decrease inflammation for those with these conditions as well as those in the general population.

AR: A regular exercise program will reduce body fat, which can reduce vulnerability to infection, increase lean muscle, strengthen the cardiovascular and muscular skeletal systems, improve sleep quality (further improving recovery and immune function), and reduce stress and anxiety, something we could all use these days. In the short-term, a bout of exercise can reduce the effectiveness of one’s immune system until that person gives the body the necessary time to recover. After recovery, we experience an adaptation known as “supercompensation.” One of the benefits of this is enhanced immune function, including a decrease in overall body inflammation, one of the mechanisms that helps the coronavirus enter the body and bind to molecules in the nose and lungs.

Mindy, what advice would you give to someone seeking to improve immunity through nutrition? 

MH: Eat foods that are nutrient dense and less processed. Foods that provide calories but little nutrition are those filled with sugar, white flour, and fat, which often result in weight gain. Overly processed foods are not filling and entice you to keep eating. I would also advise people to eat more fruits and vegetables, especially those high in Vitamin C. These include red peppers, broccoli, spinach, oranges, grapefruit, and papaya. In addition, you can add garlic and herbs such as dill, basil and oregano to food, which not only enhance flavor but may have immune-boosting properties. I recommend stepping up the herbs in soups or marinades. You can use the readily available dried version or, better yet, plant your own herb garden, which can be done even in windowsill pots.

You can also boost consumption of foods high in probiotics such as yogurt and sauerkraut that improve intestinal function. Try mixing no-fat or low-fat yogurt with chopped dill for a quick sauce for fish or salad. Add nuts in moderation for Vitamin E, an antioxidant that can be protective against infection. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water, which is so important in eliminating waste products from the body.

Of course, no healthy lifestyle would be complete without regular physical activity. Alex, what advice do you give to beginners looking to implement an exercise routine?

AR: Goal-setting is key. Develop both long- and short-term goals. Focus the short-term goals on the specific parts of an exercise program like “I will run three times this week,” and the long-term goals on the specific outcomes you would like to see from your exercise, such as, “I want to reduce my weight three to four pounds over the next four weeks.” To get started, here are some goal-setting tips:

  • The SMART Goals formula ensures a goal is specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and time-based and is a well-established tool to help plan and reach your goals.
  • Check your goals and motivation for your goals regularly.
  • Remember, even the best excuse is still a reason you didn’t achieve your goals.

Start slow, but extensive and vigorous exercise is more beneficial. Whether you’re new to exercise or a seasoned veteran, if you haven’t participated in an exercise program recently, your body needs time to build up tolerance to the stress of exercise.

Since more vigorous exercise is beneficial, how can experienced exercisers step up their workouts?

AR: Four ways to make an exercise program more vigorous include:

  • Frequency: Add more workouts to the week
  • Intensity: Add more difficulty in the form of weight, speed, decreased rest, etc.
  • Time: Longer workouts increase metabolic stress and can result in improved fitness
  • Type: Adjusting modalities can change the impact of an exercise program (walk, run, bike, resistance training)

The Northeast is entering its mild summer season, which seems like an excellent time for someone to implement a new, healthier regimen. How can New Yorkers and others in this region take advantage of this timing?

MH: Summer brings a plethora of fresh fruit that make great desserts. With farmers’ markets opening, there’s the advantage of less risky shopping outdoors. If fresh options are not available, frozen fruits, such as blueberries and strawberries, and vegetables are packed at their peak of nutritional quality and may be more economical than fresh. A great canned fruit idea is to drain canned pineapples rings packed in juice, place side by side in a container and freeze.

AR: As reopening begins, it’s important to continue to take full advantage of the protective measures that have helped us reach this step in the process, like social distancing, face coverings, hand washing, and exercise. Although awareness of the positive impact of an exercise regimen is high, far fewer participate in exercise and derive the many benefits. Instead of including exercise as part of their lifestyles during these unprecedented times, many individuals have gained weight, lost muscle mass, and become nearly sedentary. These lifestyle choices increase the risk of potentially developing chronic health conditions and increase one’s risk of developing a COVID-19 infection. Luckily, it’s not all bad news, and it’s not too late to include exercise into your “new norm.” Even better, you don’t need any specialized equipment or a special training plan to get started.