Exercise and Diet Support a Healthy Immune System

When lives get busy and stressful, exercise and nutrition are often the first things sacrificed. But did you know these are essential to a strong immune system?

Stress is an experience that you are probably familiar with. When stressed, your body produces hormones to help manage stressors. This is helpful in the short term, but when stress continues and self-care gets left behind, these continually increased hormones can cause inflammation and weaken your immune system. A weakened immunity has a much harder time fighting off illness, making it more likely that you’ll catch something!

Managing stress is certainly easier said than done, but here are some ways to incorporate self-care that fortifies your immune system’s defenses:


Habitual exercise enhances your immune system in numerous ways. Research shows that regular exercise improves your body’s ability to patrol for invaders that may make you sick, reducing your chances of coming down with a cold. If you happen to catch a cold but are a regular exerciser, you are more likely to experience fewer symptoms and recover from sickness faster!

Not a regular exerciser? Check out this blog for some ideas on where to start!


A balanced diet is important to keep your immune system strong enough to fight off invaders, even during periods of high stress. Include a variety of fruits, vegetables, starches, fats, and proteins in your weekly meals to get a wide range of nutrients.

Adequate protein is important to support immune system cells. Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese can help meet daily protein needs. One cup of milk has 8 grams of protein and one cup of Greek yogurt can have 20 grams! Dairy isn’t just packed with protein, though. It also has vitamins and minerals that are important for a strong immune defense. Zinc and selenium are minerals in milk that help regulate immunity. Vitamin A, B12, and D, also in milk, are essential to ward off infections.

Additionally, your gastrointestinal tract or “gut” has bacteria that play an important role in immune function. Regularly eating probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt and kefir supports your gut’s bacteria and strengthens its immune defense.


We can’t leave out sleep. We know it is important, but most do not consistently get enough. Not getting enough sleep reduces the body’s ability to produce immune cells and increases the chance of getting sick when exposed to viruses. Sleep experts recommend at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Having a cool dark room and turning off electronics a couple of hours before bed can improve your sleep. Regular exercise can also help you sleep better!

Especially during times of stress, having easy meals and snacks on hand may help you get the protein, vitamins, and minerals that your immune system needs. Try some of these ideas!

Overnight oats with milk or yogurt. Top with berries for extra antioxidants!
• Make your own snack box with cheese sticks, deli meat, crackers, and veggie sticks.
• Tuna salad made with Greek yogurt for extra protein.
• A quesadilla with cheese and sour cream. Add bell pepper strips for a dose of Vitamin C.
• Caprese salad. Combine fresh mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, and basil with balsamic vinaigrette. Chop up a cheese stick if you don’t have fresh mozzarella!

Emily Lepping Smith, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a master’s degree in Strength and Conditioning. She has worked with numerous professional athletes and NCAA Division 1 universities across 12 different sports. She and her husband help people all over the country achieve their health, fitness, and performance goals with their online nutrition and fitness coaching business, AMBIT Health and Performance.

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