In this article, I’d like to discuss the impact of an active, balanced lifestyle on our healthy development. I’ll focus specifically on how nutrition, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness affect our immune system and aging process. Firstly, I’ll introduce the basics on how the immune system works and how we age, followed by the impact of our lifestyle choices. Finally, I’ll wrap up with some suggestions and recommendations for getting into the habit of staying healthy and promote healthy aging. This isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, so make sure that at each step you adopt to; your level of fitness, dietary needs, and lifestyle choices.
Understanding the Immune System
The immune system is a large network of cells, tissues, organs, and proteins. They protect us from threats such as dead/faulty tissues and harmful pathogens. Such “non-self” tissues are differentiated from “self” tissues, which are healthy and belong. The immune system does so by detecting proteins present on the surface of all cells and secreting antibodies (special proteins) that lock on to antigens (bacteria, fungi, viruses, toxins, or foreign bodies) that might be harmful to us. These antibodies act as “death markers” for antigens, which are then “killed” by other cells, such as phagocytes, IgM, or Killer T cells.
Many of our lifestyle choices impact our immune cell count, affecting the strength of our immune system. Generally, it becomes more reactive during adulthood through exposure to pathogens. Once an antibody has been produced, a “copy” of it it saved in the body so it can react quicker next time. This is referred to as adaptive, or acquired, immunity. (Newman, 2018)
Unfortunately, there are many ways we can harm our immune system. The data have shown no conclusive reason for weakened immunity, but have shown a strong relationship with cell count. Also, although inflammation is the immune system’s normal response, it can be harmful. This happens when the cause of the immune response isn’t a toxin, but rather something like chronic stress. By living healthy lifestyles and avoiding negative habits, we can ensure the best possible environment for our immune system. This includes regular exercise, good sleeping habits, balanced diets, and of course avoiding unhealthy activities such as smoking. Fortunately, this lifestyle also creates the conditions for healthy aging. I’ll explain how throughout the article. (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021)
What to Expect from Aging
Aging is a continuous process beginning in early adulthood, resulting in the gradual decline of many bodily functions. The concepts of “old” and “elderly” are both, however, purely historical rather than biological. Traditionally, 65 is considered the beginning of “old age”, based on the chosen age of retirement in Germany, the first country to establish a retirement program.
Although many changes that make us feel “old” occur mostly as a result of lifestyle changes and subtle effects of disease, there is still a noticeable decline in many bodily functions referred to as “normal” aging. This differentiates our “chronological age” from our “biological age”, which can be measured by telomere length. Telomeres are like protective caps on our chromosomes facilitating replication. While it cannot be measured at home, studies have shown the impact of our lifestyle choices on telomere length. (Monpetit et al., 2014)
Many “normal” changes are similar to that of illnesses; be it reduced attention span and decline in cognitive function (dementia) or higher blood sugar levels after meals as we age (diabetes). We should pay particular attention to inflammation, which in more serious cases is linked to conditions such as diabetes, dementia, and cardiovascular disease. It may be a normal immune process, but incorrect inflammation may lead to reduced immune cell count, weakening our immune system. (Woods et al., 2012)
Fortunately, like with our immune system, our lifestyle choices can create an optimal environment for healthy aging. Some are easy once made a habit, like regularly brushing/flossing to reduce the likelihood of tooth loss. Good sleep, regular exercise, and balanced diets are also important to what we call “successful”, or healthy aging (Besdine, 2019). Throughout the rest of this article, I will address each one and how they can help us fight off disease and age successfully.
Eat Healthy, Feel Healthy!
Nutrition fundamentally contributes to our immune system’s ability to protect us from damaging micro-organisms causing infections in our bodies. A well-balanced diet subsidizes our immune system, enhancing our resistance to infections. On the other hand, malnutrition oppresses our immune system, breaking down immune functions. This goes for both macro- and micro-nutrients; even a mild deficiency in a single nutrient causes a noticeable change in our immune response. Therefore, it’s key to track our protein, vitamin, and water intake. (Chandra, 1997)
Free radicals are highly-volatile molecules that we need for daily function. However, in excessive amounts they may become dangerous by causing large chain reactions in the body. Our first line of defense against free radicals are vitamins C, E and beta-carotene (Karacabey, K., Ozdemir, N., 2012). In other words, replace those chocolate snacks with carrots, nuts, and citrus fruits! To ensure optimal antibody production, we should also take in plenty of protein, Vitamin A, and zinc. Additionally, dietary fiber when fermented by our digestive system has anti-inflammatory effects. Vitamin D has also been shown to prevent cellular infection (Iddir et al., 2020). Dairy, beans, and legumes are a great source for all of those. Of course, there are also many costly supplements and medicines that strengthen our immune system. However, a well-balanced diet is by far the most natural, economical preference.
Food Promotes Healthy Aging
Fortunately, nutrition also plays a key role in determining how “well” we age. Berry fruits, walnuts, and fish oils are a great source of healthy fats, protein, and antioxidants; known to increase cognitive function in the aging brain. The polyphenolic compounds they contain make us less vulnerable to oxidative stress, which in turn mitigates the “normal” loss of cognitive ability as we age. (Joseph et. al., 2009)
Our skin is subject to both intrinsic and extrinsic aging processes. Intrinsic skin aging is “normal” and similar to how our internal organs age, while extrinsic factors such as; pollution, smoking, sleep deprivation, UV irradiation, and poor nutrition, should be avoided. Beyond the preventative measures we can take against extrinsic skin aging, we should also pay attention to our diets. Many of the nutrients that strengthen our immune system, such as antioxidants, vitamins A,C,D,E, and omega-3 fatty acids also promote healthy, beautiful skin. (Schagen, 2012)
Stay Fit, Stay Healthy!
Physical activity is known for its many health benefits, especially chronic disease treatment and prevention. US guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of weekly exercise, especially for those suffering from chronic diseases. Both cardio and weight training bring many benefits; improved cardiorespiratory health, enhanced musculoskeletal function, better sleep, pain management, and more. However, it’s crucial to monitor the stress we put on our bodies while keeping fit. For best results, aim for a consistent, moderate intensity workout lifestyle. (Scheffer et al., 2020)
Physical activity strengthens our immune system by impacting our anti-inflammatory capacity, also promoting healthy aging. However, putting the body under too much stress (vigorous exercise) actually promotes inflammation. Add to this the stress of a competitive environment, and you may even weaken your body by lowering your immune cell count. Regardless of your fitness level, a combination of high- and low- impact workouts is highly recommended. (Brolinson et al., 2007 ; Gleeson et al., 2011)
Aging also results in chronic, low-grade inflammation. Because of this, regular exercise is recommended to maintain and increase muscle mass, reducing risk of chronic heart/metabolic system diseases. So, moderate exercise will not only strengthen your immune system, but also mitigate the negative impact of aging on your body regardless of age, gender, or body composition (Woods et al., 2012). By playing a key role in the induction of antioxidants, promoting DNA repair, and decreasing the chance of stress related diseases, regular physical exercise can even delay the aging process (Radak et al., 2005). Such “active aging” even promotes artery elasticity, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. (Tanaka, 2019)
From “Sick and Tired” to “Healthy”
The impact of tiredness on our health is crucial because of the documented decrease in average sleep periods in recent decades. Sleep is a vital part of our lives for many reasons, including the regulation of our immune cells. A good sleep also improves our development and healthy aging; certain growth hormones not only peak at night-time, but even enhance sleep. Sleep deprivation studies in both animals and humans provide key insight into how important sleep is for us. When even partial sleep deprivation becomes chronic, it has a measurable negative impact on both immune cell number and function. (Bryant et al., 2004)
The key factor to how much we should sleep is age. Infants, for example, have to sleep 12-15 hours a day, while older adults have to sleep only 7-8 hours a day. Individuals between 18 and 64 years old should sleep between 7-9 hours per night (Suni, 2021). It’s also important to consider when we sleep, as many of our immune functions fluctuate throughout a 24 hour day. In the same way growth hormones peak at night-time, anti-inflammatory immune cells reach peak production during daytime. Thus, it is very important to maintain our body’s natural circadian rhythm throughout the day to fully benefit from our sleep. (Lange et al., 2010)
We Rise at Dawn!
In this, our bodies naturally adapt to the environment; our brains become increasingly active as it gets lighter outside, and increasingly inactive as it gets darker. We should therefore aim to fall asleep a few hours after dark (between 8pm and midnight) and wake up close to sunrise. Furthermore, we should take sleep cycles into account. During sleep, we alternate between two 90 minute cycles; rapid-eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. While the number of cycles required depends from person to person, it’s important to note that sleep is lightest at the end of each cycle. We should generally aim for 4-5 cycles per night, depending on how groggy we feel when we wake up. (Johnson, 2020)
Wave Stress Goodbye!
Earlier I mentioned the strong negative impact of stress on telomere length. To achieve healthy aging, it will be important to learn to regulate your stress level. There are many no-thrill stress reduction techniques that you can apply readily: resting, having fun, reading, taking time for yourself.
Now, let’s talk about mindfulness, a stress-killing practice that improves our cognitive thought. Mindfulness has Buddhist origins and has since been adapted to Western life as a form of physical and psychological treatment. It stems from the Pali word sati, “to remember”, and refers to a clear mental focus in any given moment. It should be practiced in a very particular way, and most importantly be void of judgement. To practice mindful meditation, you must relax the body and remain mentally alert, with an attitude of open curiosity and acceptance. You should adopt an upright sitting position with minimal movement and direct attention to a pre-determined object around you, such as the tip of your nose.
Of course, you will be distracted by feelings, but it is very important not to apply any labels or actually process information, rather to accept it with a blank mind. Interestingly, this goes for both positive and negative thoughts, as the ultimate goal is not to evoke only pleasant feelings, but rather to acknowledge and accept the present moment.
With regular practice, you will appraise situations as less threatening. Studies have noted reduced reactivity to social threats, more positive perceptions of people, and reduced workplace stress. Overall, mindfulness is a great tool for relaxation and stress reduction, allowing us to live happier, less stressful lives by allowing us to truly live in the moment without prejudice or overthought. (Epel et al., 2011)
All it Takes to Stay Healthy?
You should view this article as the tip of the iceberg. Our body is a very complex, intricate machine we will always yearn to understand, and healthy aging is more art than science. The most important takeaway is that it’s not what is happening to your body, but rather how and why it’s happening. As I mentioned above, we experience many changes to our mind, skin, and immune system throughout our lives; and that’s ok! What we should really focus on is ensuring we create an optimal environment for these changes by; exercising regularly, eating balanced meals, sleeping correctly, and avoiding unnecessarily stressful situations.
I am still young, but I am concerned with my health and I strive to be on the healthy aging path. My preferred workout style is a combination of HIIT and LISS training. This way, I achieve the desired fat-burning effects of short, intense workouts. I also give my body time to recover during moderate, low-impact cardio sessions. This in turn gives me the chance to improve my cardiovascular health and overall stamina. When it comes to my diet, I believe in the “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) approach.
This allows me to get creative with my meals while always keeping track of my macronutrient intake. By sticking to healthy foods, I also take in the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. I find consistency is key when it comes to sleep; there’s a reason children have set bedtimes! In my case, I sleep for 8 – 8.5 hours per night, from 11pm to 7am. I must admit, mindfulness and mediation are my key development areas right now.
Before making any sudden changes, I suggest you track where you are now. Take a look at the last two weeks and note down how often you’ve exercised and what you’ve eaten. If memory isn’t your strong suit, spend the next two weeks writing your lifestyle down. From there, you will easily see what you’re doing well and where your potential for improvement lies.
Once you have a good understanding of where you’re at, it’s time to kick things in gear. The articles I linked in the above section will give you an idea of how to start planning your IIFYM diet and LISS/HIIT workout plans. I suggest starting with two HIIT and one LISS session per week to give your body plenty of time to adapt. Make sure you support this with a balanced, varied diet! Your sleeping patterns will be highly dependent on your lifestyle, so do all you can there. Finally, carve out at least 10 minutes per week to sit and just think, or even do a guided meditation. This will feel like a chore in the beginning, but will very quickly become an escape from your daily stressors.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article, I hope this gave you the answers you were looking for. If instead I led you to more precise questions or further research, I’m happy I could guide you.