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How To Improve Your Immune System With Movement This Cold And Flu Season
I was just starting to feel smug about how I never get sick any more when I woke up yesterday with that strange, echo-y feeling you get right before you realize you have a cold. Blech.
I immediately started with oregano oil, turmeric, bone broth and lots of tea, but I also created an immune boosting exercise program. Movement isn’t always what we think of first when it comes to warding off a cold, but it’s an absolute key for a functional immune system. Here’s why movement is necessary and what to do if you want some extra immune support this winter to help you beat colds and the ‘flu!
Why It’s No Surprise That I Caught A Cold
I’m actually really prone to colds – I usually get around 3 a year. Annoying, right? And I really was feeling very pleased last week to think that I escaped my second 2016 bout of illness. But although I’m not super sparked to be sick like this, I’m not surprised at all.
Because I have (had?) a tongue tie, my body has adapted by changing my swallowing mechanics. This in turn has created soooooo much tightness in my neck and shoulders. My muscles in these areas, my are short and tense, which means they don’t move very much. When entire chunks of your body don’t move much, things usually start to go wrong, and in this case, neck and shoulder tightness has a direct impact on my immune system. Crazy, right?
Your Immune System Depends On Movement.
You’ve probably heard of the lymph system. It’s a major part of our bodies’ immune system, and consists of a network of tubes, tissues and organs that allow lymph fluid to circulate throughout the body. Lymph fluid removes toxins from cells and carries white blood cells to wherever they are needed most. Like my nose and throat now that I have this cold.
What’s really important to know is that the lymph system doesn’t have a pump. That means that physical movement is actually the only way your body can move lymph fluid where it needs to go (ummm, everywhere!). Unlike your circulatory system, which in part depends on the heart, you need to actually move your body in order for your immune system to work.
Back when humans used to move, not a problem! These days, it’s kind of a huge issue. Most of us don’t move our joints very much at all, and when we do move them, it’s in limited ranges. Even though I do lots of movement work, it’s going to take some time to get my body to lengthen in my neck and shoulders (especially because I still spend lots of time in front of a computer).
8 Ways To Use Movement To Help You Beat That Cold
Your lymph nodes cluster around your neck, shoulders, hips and belly (this article has a great diagram). So although any movement is going to help pump your lymph fluid around, these are the areas I focused on when I created my immune-boosting workout.
I’ve picked five awesome exercises and created this mini-workout for you (and me!). I’ve also picked some non-exercise type movements that deliver awesome immune-boosting benefits so that you can work move movement into your daily life. I will say that #5 is my favourite of these, because once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to work into your daily life (I’m doing it every time I take a computer break today). It’s also a way to increase the health benefits of walking, so that’s a nice bonus!>
#1 My Favourite Neck Stretch
Sit on a bolster with a neutral pelvis. Allow your ribs to drop and then reach your left hand towards the ground to brace your weight as you bend to the side. Reach your right arm overhead and let your head hang towards the left. Now, keep your head where it is and bring your right arm down so it’s reaching towards the floor about 30 degrees in front of you. Rotate your elbow pit externally and move your arm slowly and gently until you find the line of tension in your neck. Now hang out for a minute or so before you switch sides. This feels SO GOOD.
#2 Roll Out Your Core
This is one of my all-time favorites. You’ll need a Yoga Tune Up Coregeous ball or a similar soft and squishy ball. I highly recommend going to the trouble of getting one. Here’s how to use it!
#3 Crescent Stretch
This one helps you work your core, improve your breathing, use your shoulders and practice dropping your ribs – as well as helping boost your immune system and fight colds and ‘flu. Um, yes please!
Start in standing with your weight back over your heels and your ribs down. Lift both arms in the air as high as you can without lifting your ribs and grab your left wrist with your right hand. Side bend over to the right but don’t let your pelvis move – this is all about creating movement at your waist. Breathe deeply into your left side ribs and enjoy for a minute or so before switching sides.
#4 Legs On The Wall
This is a great hip opener, so it’s nice for pelvic floor health as well as your immune system.
Just find yourself a wall and something for the back of your head. Lie on your back and rest your feet on the wall in a wide vee. Once you’re there, notice if your lower back is flat on the ground. If so, it means your pelvis is tucked and you need to back away from the wall until your pelvis can come to neutral. Hang out here for 2 minutes and enjoy!
#5 Swing Your Arms
Just swinging your arms is a great way to boost your movement at the shoulders. Plus, most of us don’t swing our arms very well when we walk so this exercise will help you improve your walking arm swing, too.
Start by lifting both arms up behind you, then let them flop down. Use your muscles to lift them up and back, then allow gravity to take care of the rest. Once you’ve practiced this a few times, try one arm at a time until you can link it up smoothly as though you were walking. Swing for a minute or two (squeeze your fingers and hands to stop blood from piling up in your fingers). This makes a great computer break and you can do it often – I’m going for about every 30 minutes today. Or you can go for a walk and practice as well.
If you want a few more details on how to swing your arms this way (I’ve found it can be a bit confusing at first), I made a little video for you that you can pick up right below.
Immune Boosting Movements
Exercises are good, but they don’t really compare to all day movement. Here are my favourite daily movements that I’m making sure to do a whole lot right now.
#6 Wave Your Hands In The Air!
Waiting for a page to load on your computer? Passing through a doorway? Cooking or cleaning? These are all great times to take the opportunity to reach your hands up in the air. Otherwise known as using your shoulders! You can be pretty free-form about this – just wave ‘em around. Or, you can try to keep your ribs still and your shoulder blades down. You’ll get less range of motion but it will be more specific to your shoulders. If you want to take it one step further, try doing some doorway hangs. These feel fantastic and will amp up the loads to your shoulder tissues, as well as hopefully giving you a giant immune boost!
#7 The Floor Is Your Best Friend
I will never shut up about floor-sitting! It’s the single best way that I’ve found to get more movement in my life without adding extra time. When it comes to your immune system, spending time squatting, cross-legged, or in a vee-sit will help pump lymph around your hip joints while you’re working, watching a movie, or eating dinner. Try to sit with a neutral pelvis – just bolster up as much as you need to and then get creative with your hip angles. Fast, easy and effective!
#8 Cold Showers
I know that cold showers don’t really sound like movement, but that’s only if you think of movement as the same thing as exercise. Movement is waaaaaay bigger than exercise and includes all kinds of things including all the physiological reactions your body naturally has to being exposed to cold. Such as making goosebumps and changing the way your blood flows. Tiny movements, yes, but these are movements your body is adapted to do, so missing out on them means you’re missing out on a chunk of stuff!
To help me get some regular cold exposure, I always make sure that at least part of my shower is under cold water (Chris and I also spend a few minutes every morning going outside in our tee-shirts, which is a big deal when it’s -10!). Cold showers are thought to be a great way to give yourself a general immune system boost. If you think that this sounds horrible, you can get lots of benefit from alternating hot and cool water for about 30 seconds each – no need to make it freezing, it’s just about the contrast. Personally, this is something I’m saving for improving my immune system when I’ve gotten over this cold, though – it seems better to nurture my body with warmth right now.
If all else fails….
If movement, tea, essential oil and stretching doesn’t do the trick, try going to bed early! That’s what I’m off to do.
Hoping these stretches and tips help you stay super healthy this cold & flu season. I’m always looking to learn more though – let me know your favourite cold remedies in the comments below!
Petra is a movement educator and personal trainer with a passion for helping people find greater ease, joy and health in their bodies. She believes that better movement can help every body – and she’s always happy to chat about it. When she’s not teaching, you’ll probably find her hanging out on a set of monkey bars.