Immunity and exercise are not usually mentioned in the same sentence. In this blog I connect the two and share tools that can be used to help your immune system function better.
First, let’s discuss the stress response we know as “Fight or Flight”. This response is what our bodies do when there is a perceived threat. This can help us stay safe in many situations. The major problem with it is being in this zone of fight or flight too often. If we are constantly stressed we start to break down and cannot recover. If we let things like road rage, money problems, or even watching the news bring us into this mode there can be some serious medical issues that stem from it, especially if it is habitual.
They say stress kills. This is what I’m trying to get across. If you are constantly in the mode of fight or flight how does your body relax? Can your body relax? How is your endocrine system responding? What kind of long-term effects follow? Asking these questions are the first step in becoming “woke”.
Additionally, stress can raise blood pressure which in turn causes heart disease for many people. There are many factors to consider that can cause high blood pressure, but it’s been proven stress can affect it directly. The stress response has also been proven to suppress the immune system. This is why stress can cause illness, anxiety, and/or depression. Avoiding stress altogether is probably not possible and if it was then there would be other issues like will your body protect itself when threatened/challenged? When the body goes into fight or flight we have tools that are accessible to almost everyone to help us get out of this response.
In contrast, the opposite of the stress response is the relaxation response. Your central nervous system, CNS, has two branches. These are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system represents the stress response or the fight or flight Mode. The parasympathetic nervous system represents the relaxation response.
So, how do we go from Sympathetic to Parasympathetic?
Techniques have been around for thousands of years but because we live in a world of numbers we need to study something and put quantitative values to things before we trust it. Meditation has been around longer than our country has been formed but we, as a country, haven’t given validity to this until around the 1970’s when Dr. Herbert Benson developed a technique at Harvard Medical School. He found that the relaxation response can be achieved using different modalities including meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, repetitive prayer, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. The one thing all of these have in common is the breath.
In fact, deep breathing is a key factor when addressing immunity and exercise. Deep breathing also goes by the names diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing, and paced respiration. This is done simply by allowing air to come in through your nose, filling the lungs fully. The lower belly expands or rises on the inhale and relaxes on the exhale.
This can feel very unnatural for our culture mostly because we try to have a flat good looking stomach. Of course, in our culture and you can see this being portrayed in all kinds of marketing. For example, when you see someone with their shirt off in a magazine or a billboard that person has a flat belly and we expect that at this point. This conditioning makes it difficult for us to use our belly when breathing because we feel it may be unattractive.
We tend to do more chest breathing, and when we do that we are not using the lungs to their full capacity. The lower part of the lungs do not fill in when chest breathing. Because of this, we can feel short of breath or anxious. Deep belly breathing encourages a full oxygen exchange through the lungs which will slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.
Surely, practicing breathing techniques can significantly improve immunity when combined with exercise. When trying this on your own there are many techniques a person can use. There are different rhythms, positions, and even focuses. To start, I recommend keeping it simple.
First, find a quiet place and get comfortable in whatever position allows the most relaxed posture. Breathe in slowly through your nose and allow the stomach to expand fully. Once the stomach can’t expand anymore, try to expand the chest. Then, exhale slowly. The exhale can be through the nose or the mouth. Pick whichever is most comfortable. Once you are more comfortable with this deep belly breathing technique, you can start adding imagery or even a word or phrase to help you relax.
The goal is to relax. So, sometimes trying hard can be counterproductive. Getting distracted seems to be the hardest part for most people. It’s easy for your mind to wonder and not allow you to really settle down. That’s why you may hear a lot of people say “focus on your breath”. A helpful trick for me is focusing on the air hitting my nose. Follow the breath through the throat and start filling up the stomach. I focus on feeling the breath in my lungs and become aware of how that makes the rest of my body feel.
This direct focus keeps me in the moment and allows me to stay present. To establish a habit it is wise to practice everyday at the same time. Your body will get used to it eventually and it will really help in so many ways. Maybe start with a minute so it is not too overwhelming, then slowly build up to 10-20 mins per day.
Immunity and Exercise
Now that you know how to support your immunity with tools we all have access to, I hope you start a routine and feel the benefits! For me, I feel so much more focus after I am done and my presence increases and allows me to live in the moment. This never seemed important before, but after doing it for a while I feel amazing. Not only am I able to have more deep meaningful conversations, I’m also not distracted thinking about other things. I feel less anxious and less tension in my body. And, I’m saving energy and I love how that feels! The list goes on and on.
If you have any questions please reach out to me or team Ampersand. We all use breath work in some way and would love to help anyone who would like additional support. Good luck and breath well my friends!