When your immune system is strong, you can fight invaders such as bacteria, viruses and harmful chemicals. What’s more, a tough immune system helps fight free radicals—molecules in the body that can contribute to cancer, heart disease, atherosclerosis, dementia and other chronic illnesses. For older adults, having a strong immune system is especially vital, since illnesses and infections can last longer and be more debilitating than in younger years.
By following a healthy lifestyle, you can help fortify your immune system. Follow these five steps to build up your resistance to infection and disease:
- Eat right. Hit the produce aisle for a variety of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, yams, citrus fruits, apples and berries. Aim for a balanced diet that includes whole grains like brown rice and cereal, lean protein like chicken and fish and plenty of water. Even small nutrient deficiencies make it harder for the body to prevent and recover from disease. Take a multi-vitamin—especially if you are on a diet or skip meals; eat an unbalanced diet; suffer from a chronic disease; or take medications such as corticosteroids, thyroid hormones, antibiotics or diuretics regularly.
- Exercise often. To fend off colds, flu and infections, put on your walking shoes. A 20- to 30-minute brisk walk five days a week helps maintain a healthy immune response and lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. Add more activity to your day any way you can. Do yard work. Take the stairs. Go line dancing or bowling.
- Get some zzzs. While your body rests, your immune system is recharged. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Schedule downtime before going to bed so you can relax and let sleepiness take over. Cut out naps if they interfere with your evening sleep.
- Dump bad habits. Smoking, overeating and drinking alcohol excessively tax your immune system. Put yourself in the right frame of mind to quit—even if you’re not ready to commit. Sit in on a support group for smoking cessation, weight loss or substance abuse.
- Relax! Depression, anxiety and high levels of stress hormones sap your immune function. To restore emotional balance, take a yoga or tai chi class, pray, meditate or perform simple breathing exercises. Restore your energy by making time for things you enjoy. Knit, listen to music, stroll through the park or take a soothing bath.