During winter in the Northern Hemisphere, cooler weather, fewer daylight hours, and more time spent indoors with others increase our risk of illnesses such as the common cold, COVID-19, or the flu. While there are no superfoods, wonder supplements, or nutritional shakes that are scientifically proven to boost your immunity, there are things that people of every age can do to improve their immune system. Vaccinations for various diseases are key to protecting all age groups.
Staying active, getting enough sleep, and getting vaccinated are all ways to boost immunity, especially in winter when the risk of infectious viral disease is high. This holds true for all ages.
Ensuring sufficient daily (or weekly) physical activity improves immune function.
Children 6–17 should engage in moderate-intensity exercise at least 1 hour per day.
Weekly exercise recommendations for adults 18–64 and seniors 65 and over consist of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity. The degree of intensity will vary with age, health conditions, and fitness levels.
Sleep duration varies with age; the younger one is, the more sleep one gets and needs. Ensuring adequate sleep aids in immune function and is key to one’s overall health.
Ensuring enough rest, practicing proper hygiene, and making smart choices when sick or at risk for illness can help regardless of age. Understanding ways to maintain a healthy immune system helps protect us all, from infants to senior citizens.
Winter health strategies for children, adults, & seniors
There is no magic way to boost one’s immune system. Millions of products, superfoods, vitamins, and supplements can be purchased worldwide, all claiming to improve immune function, save lives, prevent illness, and many other statements not backed by science. However, very few of these products have real benefits, and some may also be harmful.
Research shows that ensuring you get your daily dose of vitamin C all year round has protective effects, and zinc taken at the start of a cold may help lessen the severity. However, what really impacts our immune system is how well we care for ourselves, minimize our risks of exposure to infectious bugs like viruses and bacteria, and ensure we get enough nutrition and sleep. This holds 365 days a year, but when weather, mental health challenges (changing daylight lengths), and less time outdoors increase our risk of winter infections, ensuring we care for our immune systems is even more important.
All age groups: 10 steps to boost immunity
Ensuring everyone practices proper hygiene, washing hands with soap and water before and after handling food, changing a baby’s diaper, being sick, playing outside, gardening, and many other instances when it makes sense to do so goes a long way. If soap and water aren’t available, using a 60% or greater alcohol-based hand sanitizer is the next best thing. Any child old enough to wash their hands can be taught to use hand sanitizers. But beyond regular hand washing and routine hygiene practices, these ten tips to boost our immune health stand true regardless of age, overall health, or activity level.
- Get enough exercise. Avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
- Get regular vaccinations as recommended by healthcare professionals and public health organizations appropriate for your age and risk level.
- Ensure sufficient sleep. Getting enough sleep (quantity) and a good quality rest go a long way to maintaining a healthy immune system.
- Ensure a well-balanced diet.
- Maintain your hydration.
- Get to and maintain a healthy body weight.
- Get plenty of sunshine (exercise outdoors and meet your daily vitamin D needs).
- Wear face masks. When you are sick, wear them to protect others, and when in large groups/gatherings, wear them if you are at risk of illness.
- Cut out smoking and vaping. These are known to negatively impact one’s immune and overall health.
- Pay attention to your mental health. Self-care and minimizing stress are essential to protecting our immune system. Yoga, mindfulness practices/meditation, tai chi, reading a book, or simply taking time out for oneself may make the difference between health and illness, regardless of age.
Immunity strategies for all ages
Let’s take a closer look at the first three of our ten steps to boost immunity and evaluate different recommendations for various age groups. How much sleep, activity, and vaccinations are recommended varies depending on a person’s lifestyle. Further, underlying illnesses or individual characteristics affect how each step translates for different age groups. However, what constitutes active or appropriate sleep duration varies with age.
Physical activity improves immune health
Physical activity improves immune function regardless of age, gender, or health status. Additionally, it helps lessen the chances of being overweight or obese, further protecting individuals from chronic conditions such as diabetes, which results, in part, from excess weight. The amount of activity recommended varies with each age group. Additionally, though there are recommended amounts per week, day, or year, these aren’t set in stone and will fluctuate with individual characteristics, living conditions, and more.
Kids need stimulation and enrichment to stay engaged, well-behaved, and healthy. An active child, rather than one who spends hours on end sitting on the couch watching TV or playing computer games, will have a better immune system and a higher chance of fighting off that pesky winter virus.
Preschoolers (3–5 years):
Kids 3–5 years old are usually active without encouragement and generally on and off all day. However, if your child isn’t active compared to other kids of the same age, consult your pediatrician to make sure nothing is amiss.
Children and teens (6–17 years)
Ideally, kids and teens 6–17 should get a minimum of 1 hour of moderate or higher-intensity physical exercise per day.
Activity for kids doesn’t have to mean high-intensity sports like track/field, football, or soccer; it could be simply playing on the playground or going for a walk. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that kids aged 6–17 engage in some form of vigorous activity like running or playing a sport at least 3 times a week. Further, they should engage in exercises that strengthen bones (e.g., jumping rope, stair climbing, dancing) and those that bolster muscles (e.g., push-ups, planks, free weights with proper instruction).
Adults (18–64 years)
Public health professionals and research data agree that for individuals ages 18–64, a minimum of 150 minutes weekly of moderate-level activity, for example, fast walking, helps maintain a healthy immune system. Further, at least twice a week, experts suggest activities that improve muscle strength (e.g., push-ups, squats, weight lifting, free weights, various aerobic activities).
Those 65 and up
For those with more life experience (65 and above), 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity is recommended. Activities such as brisk walking count for moderate intensity. Additional recommendations for this age group include 2 days weekly of muscle-strengthening exercises. Finally, for this age group, experts recommend activities that help maintain and improve balance, e.g. tai chi, standing on one foot, heel-to-toe, and sit-to-stands.
Regardless of a person’s age and the daily or weekly recommended activity, engage in exercises that are right for your lifestyle and physical abilities and aren’t contraindicated by any underlying medical conditions. Talk to a healthcare provider before starting new exercises or activities to ensure they are right for you and your health.
How much is enough sleep?
The quality and duration of one’s sleep have impacts on immune health. Research has demonstrated benefits from overall wellness to improving response to vaccinations. The benefits of sleep and the body’s need for sleep are undeniable.
Each age group has different sleep requirements. This is based on various factors, though these requirements represent the averages. Some people will fall on either side of those averages and still may have healthy immune systems and overall health despite not fitting within the norm. Talk to a healthcare provider if your sleep duration or quality is less than ideal or negatively impacting your immune system.
- Experts suggest that the average preschooler requires 10–13 hours of daily sleep (naps and overnight).
- The daily recommendation for school-aged children (6–12 years) is 9–12 hours.
- For teens 13–18, the average sleep for optimal health is suggested to be 8–10 hours/day.
- For adults 18–60, people should strive for at least 7 hours a night.
- For those 61–64, 7–9 hours a night is ideal.
- For those 65 and over, 7–8 is considered the norm.
All age groups may have multiple reasons for poor sleep habits, but improving sleep habits by establishing a routine and a regular sleep-wake cycle goes a long way to ensuring a healthy immune system. This allows the body to recover from daily stressors, reset, and recharge.
Doctors in the U.S. suggest the ideal time to receive this vaccination is between October 15 and November 15 before the winter flu season gets into full swing. Other vaccinations may be warranted depending on location, age, underlying health conditions, overall risk factors, and availability.
For those over 65, speak with your physicians about whether additional vaccines are needed or if boosters should be administered more frequently than for the other populations. We experience a decline in immune system performance as we age. Thus, the vaccine response may be less robust, requiring additional boosters or more frequent vaccine intervals.
Health challenges this winter
This winter season, to protect your family, friends, and people of all ages, wash your hands regularly, keep your distance from those who are sick when feasible, wear face masks when inside crowded locations, travel smartly, use your elbows instead of hands to cover a cough or sneeze, and talk with your healthcare providers about vaccinations, such as the flu vaccine, for all family members. Further, ensure adequate sleep, physical activity, overall nutrition, and hydration are well maintained to help thwart winter illnesses and boost your immunity.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity for Different Groups.
- Pflügers Archiv - European Journal of Physiology. Sleep and immune function.
- Journal of Sport and Health Science. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Much Sleep Do I Need?
- National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Exercise for Your Bone Health.