Ask Stew: How Do I Build Better Basic Immunity Through Fitness? –

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If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that being in good health also means having a strong immune system. Focusing on health and wellness is a matter of life or death. But for many, especially in the tactical profession, human performance is similarly critical.
One day, your fitness abilities and tactical proficiency will be determining factors in a potential life-or-death situation — either your own, your buddy’s or a victim you are trying to help. Taking health, wellness and fitness seriously is that important.
Here is an email from a 35-year-old man seeking to serve in the Army with a few different issues from the normal 18-year-old recruit.
My name is Jim and have been working hard all my life in construction and have always wanted to serve. I decided in 2022 I will be enlisting at the age of 35. I would have enlisted a few years ago, but with COVID, I thought I should wait out the lockdowns and quarantines and work on my immune system.
I have always been fit with my work and training for Ranger school one day, but always kept getting sick every few months during allergy and cold and flu seasons. Do you have any advice on being fit and able to fight off common cold (and not so common illnesses) as I age? Just curious about your advice on a balance of training, work, nutrition and recovery as I see you write about these often. Thanks for your time, Jim.
Jim — great question and thanks for considering serving in the military.
You are right. Immune health is something we all need to do better with, as we have taken it largely for granted for most of our lives. However, seasonal illness and viruses and bacterial infections occurring quite often are red flags that should be addressed. I recently wrote an article concerning Improving your Immune System, and you should check that out first, as well as consider the following:
Why do you get ill? Our number one damaging factor to our ability to fight colds and illness is stress. In your case, working out hard to prepare a 30-plus-year-old body for Ranger school is a huge stressor. Add a long day of work on a construction site, quick meals, alcohol consumption and poor sleep, and you have a recipe for over-stress and under-recovery, which will lead to you being more susceptible to illness. Also, burning this many calories per day and not eating enough to balance out that workload will lead to lower body-fat percentages. If you are in the single digits (and especially if below 5%) with your body fat, you also will be sicker more often.
There was a time in my life when I could outwork my diet and was very lean but constantly sick with seasonal colds, viruses and infections. It was not until I started to understand the importance of actively pursuing recovery that I was able to balance hard workdays (and workouts) with healthful food choices, better sleep, hydration and relaxing (de-stressing). My immune system improved as a result. Here are some tips to put it all together:
Do not eliminate macronutrients. Eat your carbs, fats and proteins. Eat more fiber-rich foods, too. If you are going to eliminate or strictly reduce something, make it processed foods. Here is a great list of foods that will help. You will find once you find the right balance of good calories coming into your body, you will be better able to perform. Because of the nutrients you get from the three groups, you also will be able to better fight illness as well. Make sure you are eating often enough throughout the busy workday and pre-post workouts.
Better sleep — this is a MUST! That’s especially true when you are burning the candle at both ends with manual labor work and tough workouts. Think of each meal and each night’s sleep as both recovery from the previous activities of the day as well as tomorrow’s energy demands.
Stay clean. It is no secret that washing your hands and avoiding putting your hands in your mouth and nose can help you not get sick. After being in public spaces, wash your hands as tomorrow’s cold virus is likely living on door handles, tables, handrails and just about any surface. Long before COVID, my number one piece of advice for people going to boot camp or basic training where people who have travelled from all over the country are now living together in close quarters was not to touch your face and constantly wash your hands. Getting an upper-respiratory infection while in basic training can set you back months in your ability to maintain your physical abilities, especially if you are entering basic training at high levels of fitness for future special-ops selection programs.
There is a fine line between advanced level of fitness and overdoing it to a point where recovery is hampered, thus affecting your immune system as well as overall performance. Reducing your overall workload a few months out from shipping so you can focus solely on your fitness performance and recovery is possibly the best option as you prepare to depart next year.
However, for those who need to also add in a fitness component, start with the basics. Something that progresses over time in frequency and intensity into a moderate level of fitness is also going to help fight off illness better. For starters, it can be just walking and stretching with increased time each day devoted to your physical health. Fitness can strengthen your muscle, bones, cardio health and make you more resilient after catching colds. But most importantly, fitness can make you better at fighting them before they become serious infections that require a hospital stay.
Persistence wins with all these issues. Keep moving, eating well and finding ways to de-stress.
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to
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