Gabriel Patterson, Toronto fitness guru on 5 Ways to Protect Your Immune System When You Workout

Exercise is good for every organ in your body, and the benefits extend to your immune system. Moderate amounts of activity boost immune function and lower the risk of catching colds. But, as with most things, there is a point of diminishing returns. Intense exercise and pushing your body too hard without adequate rest can have the opposite effect. It can increase your risk of viral infections.

Here, Gabriel Patterson, Toronto fitness guru touches on five unique ways to protect your immune system. Gabriel is a certified personal trainer and advocate for a balanced, healthy lifestyle. He genuinely supports his clients as they revamp their health and fitness routines. See below for some of Gabriel’s favorite ways to protect his immune system.

How Does Your Immune System Respond to a Workout?

After an intense exercise session, the immune system is transiently depressed. During this window period, you are at increased risk of infection. That’s when your body needs recovery time and nutrition to help restore healthy immune function. It’s not surprising that intense or long duration exercise suppresses immune function.

During an intense workout, your body shifts its resources toward the muscles you’re working and away from functions like digestion and immune surveillance. If you get into a pattern of doing long duration or frequent and intense workouts, you may overwhelm your body’s ability to recover from a workout completely. “Incomplete recovery negatively impacts immune function and leaves you with a nasty cold, or even worse, the flu,” said Gabriel Patterson, Toronto health specialist. No one wants that!  Let’s look at some of the ways you can healthily keep your immune system functioning when you workout.

Eat a Meal or Snack that Contains Carbs

After a long or intense workout, your body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. Unfortunately, cortisol suppresses immune function. If you can reduce this release of cortisol after a workout, it’s beneficial for your immune system. Research shows that consuming carbohydrates after intense exercise helps restore a more healthy immune function. That’s partially because immune cells need glucose to function optimally. For a healthy balance, choose the snack that has four parts carbohydrate to one part protein. You need protein for muscle repair and recovery.        

Prioritize Sleep

It’s easy to not to make sleep a priority, especially if you lead an active, busy life. But sleep is critical for body repair and healthy immune function. Lack of quality sleep can increase cortisol. That’s detrimental for several reasons. One, cortisol has a catabolic effect on muscle tissue. Therefore, it makes it harder for you to get benefits from fitness training and can even lead to muscle loss. Secondly, cortisol suppresses the activity of the immune system. Aim for at least seven hours of good quality sleep per night. The more intense the workouts you do, the more you need adequate sleep, no matter your age. A lack of sleep strongly impacts healthy immune activity.

Don’t Overreach or Overtrain

You have to apply stress to your muscles to get them to adapt to your training protocol. But it’s critical that you balance training intensity with recovery. Overreaching without sufficient recovery time can suppress the activity of the immune system and increase the risk of respiratory infections. Don’t pile intense workouts on top of one another – alternate high-intensity training with low-intensity days where you aren’t maxing out your training.

Get Enough Vitamin C

Linus Pauling may have been wrong about mega-doses of vitamin C preventing the cold, but studies suggest that being deficient in vitamin C negatively impacts immune function by making it less capable of fighting off invaders. You also need up to two times the recommended daily intake (RDA) of vitamin C if you smoke.

That’s because smoking increases oxidative stress, and vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin that helps counteract this type of cell-damaging stress. Vitamin C also helps suppress the stress-related increase in cortisol. That’s important if you train hard! Raw fruits and vegetables are the best sources since cooking destroys a significant portion of vitamin C in foods.  When you do cook vegetables, lightly steaming reduces vitamin C content the least.

Check Your Vitamin D Level

Research regarding the health benefits of vitamin D is mixed. A recent study calls into question whether supplemental vitamin D reduces the risk of bone fractures of cardiovascular disease, but it does play a role in immune health. An analysis of 25 studies found that participants who supplemented with vitamin D slashed their risk of respiratory infection in half. More research is needed, and there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that everyone should supplement with vitamin D. However, it’s essential to know your level and make sure you’re not deficient, as a deficiency is relatively common.

Eat a Balanced, Whole Food Diet

Although vitamin D and vitamin C play critical roles in immune system health, you need a balanced array of all vitamins and minerals. Zinc is another mineral strongly linked with wound healing and immune function. If you eat a mostly plant-based diet, you may need to add more zinc-rich foods to your diet.

Selenium is another mineral your body needs in tiny quantities for supporting the body’s natural antioxidant defense system. In turn, that helps support healthy immune function. We mentioned vitamin E, but vitamin C helps recycle vitamin C. Therefore, you need adequate amounts of vitamin E to maintain balance. So, choose a diverse array of whole, unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and lean sources of protein. Limit sugar in your diet as some studies suggest diets high in sugar suppress the activity of immune cells.

These five tactics have proven to increase the strength of one’s immune system, ultimately helping protect it from future invaders,” said fitness trainer, Gabriel Patterson.


BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017; 9: 14.

The Harvard Gazette. “Study confirms vitamin D protects against colds and flu”

Nutrients. 2017 Nov 3;9(11). pii: E1211. doi: 10.3390/nu9111211.

J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2009 Aug;10(8):580-8. doi: 10.1631/jzus.B0920051.