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Boost Your Immune System: Tips for Nutrition, Supplements, and More
Your immune system defends your health, and now more than ever, we want it to be strong. In this episode, we talk about the eating and lifestyle choices that can compromise immunity, as well as how we can optimize our nutrition to help build this system. Plus, we give you some bonus tips for exercise and sleep.
Editor’s note: In this episode, we spoke with Tom Nikkola, the former vice president of nutrition and virtual training at Life Time. He has since left the company.
Our guest this episode is Tom Nikkola. He’s the vice president of nutrition and virtual training at Life Time, as well as a certified sports nutritionist and strength and conditioning specialist.
Simply put, your immune system is the system that defends your health. If we think of it that way, it makes it less complicated to understand what we can do from a nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle standpoint to support it.
Before you can think about boosting your immune system, you first need to focus on what you may be doing to compromise it.
Nikkola discusses the connection between digestive and immune health. From our mouths to our stomach and intestines, there’s a lot we can do to help our bodies defend themselves.
Exercise challenges your immune system. Just like your muscles get stronger if you put them to use, so does your immune system — so long as you don’t overdo it.
Your immune function doesn’t improve during exercise, but rather after exercise as you recover and rebuild tissues. Sufficient, deep sleep is a big factor in that.
Nikkola talks about what nutrition choices we can make to optimize our immune system — and why we have to making the food choices that may be hurting us. Gluten is a great example of a common problem food. Protein, on the other hand, is essential for strong immune function.
In his work with clients, Nikkola typically starts by making sure they’re eating a high amount of protein with each meal, as well as more vegetables and some fruits. He encourages people to eat four times as many vegetables as fruit.
For supplements, there are five types that Nikkola recommends everyone start with. He calls these the Foundational Five and they’re the foundation for good nutrition on top of the foods we’re eating. They include a high-quality multivitamin, fish oil, magnesium, vitamin D, and digestive enzymes.
Once someone is taking those five on a daily basis, there is research that shows — from an immune function and inflammation level — that certain forms of curcumin, probiotics, CBD, and fiber can also be helpful.
Aside from all the steps you can take to better your nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle habits, you can’t neglect your mindset. There’s conclusive research that shows if we’re ruminating on things that are negative, irritating, or stressful, we can raise our levels of inflammation and suppress our immune function.
- Immune-Boosting Foods
- High-Protein Diets: Health Benefits and Controversies
- The Foundational Five
- High-Quality Multivitamins: Why You Need Them. How to Shop for Good Ones.
- Fish Oil: Health Benefits of Supplementing for Your Body and Brain
- Vitamin D: Deficiency Symptoms and Benefits of Supplementation
- 5 Tips to Supplement With Vitamin D
- Digestive Enzymes: What Are They? Why Do You Use Them?
- Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics
- Sleep: Your Guide to a Better Brain and Body
- The Ultimate Guide to Supporting Your Immune System
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Get advice from Tom Nikkola, vice president of nutrition and virtual training at Life Time, about the eating and lifestyle choices that can compromise immunity, as well as how we can optimize our nutrition to help build this system. Plus, he shares some bonus tips for exercise and sleep.
Transcript: Boost Your Immune System: Tips for Nutrition, Supplements, and More
Season 15, Episode 15 | April 26, 2020
Welcome to Life Time Talks, the healthy living podcast that’s aimed at helping you achieve your health, fitness, and life goals. I’m Jamie Martin, editor in chief of Experience Life, Life Time’s whole life health and fitness magazine.
And I’m David Freeman, the signature program lead for Life Time’s Alpha program. We’re all in different places along our health and fitness journey, but no matter what we are working toward, there are some essential things we can do to keep moving in the direction of a healthy, purpose-driven life.
In each episode we’ll cover the foundational elements of healthy living, including fitness and nutrition, health issues like sleep and stress management, and mindfulness and community.
And we’ll be talking to experts from Life Time and beyond who’ll share their insights and knowledge, so you’ll have the tools and information you need to take charge of your next steps. Here we go.
Hey everyone, David and I are so glad to be back with you, even though it’s a little sooner than we were planning. In early March, we were just starting to finalize details of Season 2 for Life Time Talks, and then all of our lives were turned upside down by coronavirus.
So, we decided to extend Season 1 and bring you some additional episodes on coping with this new normal. With all the worries, the changes, the challenges, and the opportunities.
Like many of you, we’re in our respective homes. I’m in Minnesota . . .
And I’m in Texas . . .
And we’re recording in the quietest rooms we could find. I’m in my home office and there’s a good chance my daughters will come knocking sooner than later.
And I’m in my man cave. My kids are probably thinking I’m playing hide and seek, and they’re “it.”
We know that a lot of people are concerned and worried about coronavirus and its effects on our family and friends, our communities, our world. We are too. It’s impacting every aspect of our lives.
And while we’ll be leaving it to the local and state officials, along with public health experts and the CDC, to revive the latest information about the illness, we’re here with the intent of offering some ideas, information, and inspiration that we hope helps you navigate the days ahead.
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As the official sponsor of the Life Time Run club, HOKA and Life Time are together empowering people to live healthier, happier lives. In uncertain times like these, HOKA knows finding movement can provide an outlet both mentally and physically, as well as a crucial perspective. If we follow safe-at-home and social distancing guidelines, we will be able to see each other at your local Life Time again soon.
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Hey, everyone. We’re back with another episode of Life Time Talks, and today we’re talking about optimizing nutrition to boost our immunity. We have with us Tom Nikkola. He is the vice president of nutrition and virtual training at Life Time, as well as a certified sports nutritionist and strength and conditioning specialist. Tom, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
Let’s talk about the immune system: what it is, what its function in the body is, and what happens when it’s compromised. Can you speak to all of those things for us? It’s a lot, it’s a big question.
Yeah, I think to start with, of course our immune system is — the easiest way to think of it is it’s our defense system against stuff that either shouldn’t be in our body, or should not be going on in our body that can compromise our health. And I think the more complicated we make it, the more confusing it becomes, and then we don’t really understand what our everyday choices, the impact that they have on that immune system. So, if we just think of it as the system that defends our health, it’s pretty easy to start talking about what we can do then from a nutrition and lifestyle and exercise standpoint to support it. As soon as we get super deep and technical, we lose sight of the effect that our choices have on the immune system. So, I guess I would just keep it at that level for now.
So, what are the factors that do compromise it though? You mentioned the lifestyle choices, but can you get a little bit deeper into that and what that looks like?
Before we talk about boosting the immune system, which is what a lot of people are curious about, I always try to get them to understand that if you’re doing things that compromise it, there’s not much you can do to enhance it. So, in terms of what compromises it, of course, stress, a lack of sleep, poor dietary choices — and we can get into each one of those one at a time — but I think the overall thing that I’d like people to start with when we talk about this kind of, when we have this conversation, is what am I doing in my daily choices that’s going to hurt my defense system. And if we stop doing that, that’s probably the best thing we can do in terms of enhancing our immune system because we’re not putting ourselves into a deeper hole with it.
Yeah, Tom, when you say that, I think it’s important that we focus on understanding how digestive health and the immune system go hand in hand. We could talk about the microbiome and the important relation to that to our actual immune system.
Yeah. So, if we start there, we can start around the digestive system, or even something as simple . . . when we talk about digestive or gut, and a lot of times people go right to probiotics and the intestines where our good bacteria are and that’s certainly a part of the immune system. A lot of times there’s the stat that’s thrown out that 70 percent of our immune system sits in our guts, but the reality is, from the moment air, food, liquids, water enter our mouth, we have the ability to defend our body starting right there. And so, we have enzymes, and we have chemicals in our mouth and in our digestive track, and so on. So, something as simple as brushing our teeth has an effect on our immune system. Immunity and inflammation go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, inflammation is a component of the immune system and there’s plenty of research that shows if you’re not taking care of your teeth and gums you’re raising the level of inflammation in your mouth, you’re making your gums more prone to getting pathogens and stuff getting into your tissues. And so, before we get into the intestines, let’s start at the beginning. You know, recognize the importance of keeping our mouths clean, brushing our teeth, using good hygiene there. And of course, if we’re eating a lot of sugars and those kinds of poor dietary foods that will also impact the health of our mouths.
And then going down a little bit further, the next thing that I like to emphasize is the stomach. Before food of course enters our intestines and we can either have good or bad bacteria multiplying in our intestines, we’ve got food entering our stomach. Well, in the stomach, we’ve got enzymes and acid. The acid is important. You know, sometimes we talk about low-acid foods, or some experts will talk about having our body be more alkaline, and the reality is, we actually want an extremely acidic environment in our stomach. That protects us. That kills a lot of pathogens before they can make their way into our intestines. So, while the intestines are important in terms of the probiotics for our immune function, we have this environment in our stomach that if we’re taking a lot of antacids, or we’re under high levels of stress where our stomach isn’t as acidic as it should be, if we’re doing a lot of chronic, like an endurance-type of exercise, that can compromise the acidity of the stomach and allow pathogens to get through it instead of being killed.
The other thing that’s important in the stomach is, of course, we’ve got to break down our food. And, in breaking down our food, we need enzymes — proteases, and lipases, and amylases, carbohydrates, which help break down carbohydrate, fat, and protein —in our stomach in order to make sure by the time those food particles reach our intestines they’re properly broken down. If we don’t have enzymes breaking the food down properly because of genetics, because of medication, because of stress, age, any of that, we end up with those food particles being bigger than they should be by the time they reach the intestines, the intestines then get inflamed, and the borders, or the walls of the intestines start to break down, and that can lead to tiny food particles entering the blood stream, which sets off an immune response and leads to food sensitivities, systemic inflammation, and all that. So, you know, if we start with the mouth and the stomach, before we actually get to the gut and even think about probiotics, there’s a lot we can do to defend ourselves.
And I spent a lot of time talking about that because over the last probably 5 to 8 years, probiotics have become kind of this, almost a panacea, if you will, in terms of when people think of immune function and the gut, then they go right to probiotics. Well, if we’re not digesting our foods properly and killing off pathogens the way that we should in the stomach, then we’re not going to be able to have as good of an environment in our intestines as we should for the good bacteria to grow and proliferate. So, I’ll pause there for a minute in case any of that leads to questions or anything like that.
Well, and I think you go right to, you talk about mouth health, obviously that matters in all of this. But then you’re also talking about, you know, it starts with how we chew our food, right, it starts with that action as well, and not only taking care of our mouths, but being really mindful about how we’re eating as well.
So, you talked a little bit about the digestive health, you mentioned fitness briefly, I know we’re more focused on nutrition here, but let’s touch on those briefly — why fitness and immunity are connected.
Well, exercise, exercise challenges your immune system. So, when we strength train or do different forms of cardiovascular exercise, we cause a small amount of inflammation, we cause a little tissue breakdown, we challenge our immune system. And just like our muscles get stronger if we put them to use, our immune system does as well, as long as we don’t overdo it. Of course when it comes to Olympic athletes that are peaking towards the end of their competitive season, or they’re just getting into competition, that’s different from the average person who’s just doing a standard 45 minutes to 60-minute exercise, training session. If we’re smart about exercise, we’re actually going to improve the functioning of our immune system, we’re going to be able to handle inflammation better, there’s tons of research to support that. There’s also, of course, the benefits in terms of yoga and Pilates, and more mobility and movement-based stuff that helps us to have our joints, helps to make our joints healthier, in which case we’re reducing inflammation because we’re not causing joint pain and inflammation from the way our bodies more from too much sitting, not enough exercise, and so on.
So, in terms of exercise, of course we’re huge proponents at Life Time of that, and, as you said, I’m a strength and conditioning coach and I believe firmly that we need to be exercising a minimum of four days per week, more ideally probably five, which includes some walking and strength training and so on. But not overdoing it, either. It’s like most things in life, if you overdo it or you’re not doing enough that causes problems and there’s some middle ground where you’re getting the best results from it.
So, when you say that I like it because, obviously, a huge component of health and fitness within movement. So, what’s happening during the actual exercise is, what I’m hearing is, we’re promoting some type of stress to the body which might promote that inflammation, which builds tolerance. And then we always talk about how, work hard, but recover harder, which goes into the next piece as far as understanding that the sleep and management of stress is going to be key because of the stress that you’re putting on your body that creates that inflammation while working out. You definitely want to promote the recovery piece as well. So, how does sleep and management of stress help benefit the immune system as well.
Yeah, that’s a good question. Exercise actually by itself, it’s a stimulus. When you’re exercising, you’re not actually improving your immune function, your immune function improves after exercise as you recover and rebuild tissues. And you have a hormonal cascade that takes place, like growth hormone levels rise, and testosterone rises, and cortisol starts to fall after you’re providing some nutrition and stuff. So, after that exercise session takes place, you know, when you think of sleep, the first third of the night, provided you’re getting sufficient sleep and good quality sleep, the first third of the night is where you have most of your growth hormone levels rise. Growth hormone, though it does help build muscle tissue, it’s also important for fat metabolism, it’s important for the recovery of joints — it’s basically your recovery hormone. And if we’re not getting enough sleep — we’re going to bed at inconsistent times, with the lights are on at night, you know, there’s all kinds of factors that affect the quality of our sleep — if we’re not getting into deep sleep, growth hormone levels don’t rise, and we’re not going to be able to recover as easily. The other, the last third of the night is where we get most of our REM sleep, too, which of course is important, maybe not as important of a topic for today, but in REM that’s where our brain is recovering. The interesting thing about that and the reason I want to bring it back to the deep sleep is that if we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies always prioritize our brains over our bodies. And so, the research shows that if we’re getting five or six hours of sleep, our, we will, our body will do whatever it can to do its REM sleep. Well, if that means it has to sacrifice deep sleep, which means you’re sacrificing growth hormone and all of the ability to recover your body because your brain is trying to heal itself at night, and repair itself, and consolidate memories, and all of the stuff it does in REM, you lose deep sleep. And because of that, you won’t be able to recover as easily. And because of that, if you’re not recovering, you’re more prone to having higher levels of inflammation, more pain, you’re going to be sore longer than you should be following your training sessions. And all of that is going to affect your ability to ward off diseases and sickness because your body is trying to repair itself physically.
So many interconnected pieces within all of that.
Yeah, it kind of is a web, and it’s really hard to talk about it in kind of a linear way, which is usually the way that I try to think and speak, but as soon as you start talking about one aspect of this, it takes you in a bunch of other directions.
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Right. Well, let’s try to get back to linear. Let’s talk about nutrition more specifically. What can we do with our nutrition choices to optimize our immune system. So, you mentioned already, you know, avoiding processed, inflammatory foods, but what about — do we start with whole foods then go to supplements?
Sure. When we talk about nutrition, stop doing the stuff that’s compromising your immune system. You know, before we can talk about boosting it, we have to talk about what we’re doing to wreck it. So, an excessive amount of sugar, not eating enough protein, lots of processed foods or other chemicals in our diet, all of those are going to affect our immune function, they’re going to affect how much inflammation we’re producing in our body. Gluten is a great example. You know, just because you’re not allergic to gluten doesn’t mean that it’s not having a mild effect on raising inflammatory levels in your body. And if that’s happening, you’re compromising your immune function. So, especially in times like this, you know, getting rid of any foods that could be considered problem foods, it isn’t just important, I think it’s essential if we’re trying to remain healthy in the season that we’re in right now. So, yes, stop doing the stuff that hurts you.
In terms of what can help, protein is absolutely essential for a strong immune function. You know, we need protein to repair our muscle tissue, but it does a whole lot of other things in our bodies. And it also has an effect in building neurotransmitters, supporting our mood, and a bunch of other important things. So, what I typically will do with clients is starting with making sure they’re eating a high amount of protein with each meal and eating more vegetables, vegetables and some fruit. I know as a society we use the term “fruit and vegetables” kind of together all the time, and I always flip it around, “vegetables and fruit,” and encourage people to eat four times as many vegetables as they would fruit. So, if you love eating bananas every day, go ahead and eat the banana, but eat four servings of non-starchy vegetables along with that because there’s a lot less sugar in it.
So, I think if people just started with those two things: more protein in their diet, and eating more vegetables, they’re going to eat less of the junk anyway because they’re going to be more satisfied and they won’t have as much cravings for some of the junk that they might be getting their hands in — especially because they might be home nowadays, the cupboard is right around the corner and the kitchen because they’re working from home and all those snacks are too easy. So, if you’re eating enough protein, getting enough vegetables, you’re less likely to be eating some of that stuff you shouldn’t be.
You touched on it, obviously hitting on less processed foods, eating more whole foods, less ingredients. And then we’ve got to look at what can help complement that, which we go into the next piece of supplements. You kind of mentioned a few with the protein, I know we kind of touched on probiotics earlier, but you created something that was great I want to say a few weeks back education-wise and now it kind of lives on an article on our website, Life Time Training website, the foundational five, how it actually supports the immune system as well. So, speaking to those foundational five — and I know we could probably add the link for our listeners to go check out as well. So, when we look at our foundational five and what those things are, can you speak to those items and how they support the immune system as well?
Sure, sure. Whenever somebody says “hey, what supplement would you recommend for dot, dot, dot,” improving immune function, building muscle, better sleep, anything like that, I always steer people to these five. The idea is this is the foundation for good nutrition on top of the foods that we are eating. So, starting at the top, a high-quality multivitamin. I mean, the reality is, if we’re lacking any of the micronutrients that are necessary in our diet, we’re compromising our metabolic function. As soon as we have a gap in our metabolism, for it to work right, we’re going to compromise a plethora of systems in our body, the immune system included. So, a high-quality multivitamin doesn’t mean just looking at a label and seeing that it says 100 percent of the RDA on it. There’s a lot of very mediocre and even poor quality products that are sold in the stores that have a label that looks like it meets your needs, but there are lower quality, less bioavailable, or less absorbable forms of nutrients that make products cheaper, but you’re not actually getting those nutrients into your body. One of the other issues is that the recommended daily allowance, the RDA, which is what a lot of the labels will reference, is the minimum amount that’s necessary for the average person to avoid deficiency symptoms. It’s not an optimal amount. So, just judging a label by whether it says 100 percent of the RDA really doesn’t mean that much. So, you’ve got to do a little bit of homework. And in that article you referenced I kind of go through what a high-quality multivitamin entails, but that’s number one.
Number two is fish oil. Like probiotics, fish oil is probably the second most talked about supplement over the last decade or so. In terms of immune function, of course, it shows it does support the immune function. It helps to support normal inflammatory levels. So, omega-3 fatty acids is really what we’re looking for. But more specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, so EPA and DHA, are the omega-3s that are found in fish oil that we need in our diet. Between the two, EPA, or the eicosapentaenoic acid is the one that has more of an effect on inflammation. So, certainly looking for a fish oil that has a high concentration of both of those, but the EPA in terms of what we’re talking about today is probably the more important of the two.
Moving on from there, we’ve got magnesium is number three. About 70 percent of the population consumes less than an ideal amount of magnesium every day. And magnesium is important for like 300 different enzymatic reactions. In terms of what we’re talking about today it does support normal inflammation levels, it’s important for cardiovascular function, muscle function, not only for muscles to contract, but also for them to relax. Sometimes when people talk about restless leg syndrome and the stuff that keeps them up at night — cramps and restless leg that can compromise their deep sleep — oftentimes that’s a lack of magnesium.
Number four, we’ve got vitamin D. There’s an article at lifetime.training that we wrote on vitamin D and I know Experience Life has a lot vitamin D articles as well. Again, it’s like magnesium, the majority of the population gets less than they should. And vitamin D, which is a prohormone, is important, and for normal inflammation levels as well, but there’s a ton of research showing that the effect that it has on immune function — I have to say this I guess somewhat carefully because I don’t want it to be misinterpreted, sometimes people say, you know, vitamin D is the cure for the flu, and that’s not, you can’t really say it that way, but what does happen is there is a rise in the occurrence of flu and other sickness as vitamin D levels across the population fall. And that’s been known for a long, long time. The average person has vitamin D levels well below 30 nanograms per deciliter, and the vitamin D council says they should be between 40 and 80 for optimal health. And so, taking in 5,000, sometimes 10,000 IU is necessary for vitamin D.
And then the last one is digestive enzymes. Sometimes when I talk about the top five people are surprised that probiotics aren’t in that top five. That would actually be number six, and then we could keep going, we could have a top 20 eventually. But, I do believe, based on the research, that enzymes, and if you can find it, a formula that has enzymes plus acid in it, is more important for the very reason we talked about earlier with the stomach. If your stomach is functioning properly, you’re going to protect the environment of your intestines. So, that’s not to say probiotics aren’t important, they are, and there’s research that shows that supplementing with some probiotics helps with normal inflammation levels and of course immune function, however, if we’re causing a bunch of stuff to get into the intestines that shouldn’t be there because our stomach environment isn’t what it should be, then we should start with the stomach, and so that’s where enzymes and an enzyme-acid product would be best.
Having said all that, once someone is taking those five on a daily basis and they want to do some other things, there’s certainly research to show from an immune function and inflammation level other products, like certain forms of curcumin that are made to be absorbed well are important, probiotics like I mentioned, CBD or hemp oil shows some promise, and fiber as well. I guess we didn’t really talk other than saying non-starchy vegetables which have more fiber, even taking a fiber supplement can be helpful because a lot of fibers provide food for the good bacteria in your digestive tract so that they can grow and multiply.
Whew, that’s a lot. There’s a lot we can do.
I thought I better stop and take a breath.
Is there anything else, in light of the coronavirus that we’re all kind of living with right now, or not with it, but it’s a threat in our environment right now. Anything else people can do? Any other vitamins, micronutrients that you would recommend at this point?
I mean, I could talk all day about more supplements and nutrition, exercise stuff, but the one other thing that I’m seeing a lot of is complaining about the circumstances that we’re in right now. And I put a post on Facebook just last night saying, hey, if you’re complaining that you’re stuck at home, be grateful you’ve got a home to be stuck in. If you’re complaining that you’re around family and they’re driving you nuts, be grateful that you’ve got family to be stuck at home with, because not everybody is so blessed. And, again, going back to the research, there’s very compelling, conclusive research that shows if we ruminate on stuff that we don’t like, or that’s irritating, or stressful, we raise our levels of inflammation and we suppress our immune function. And so, even though you’re at home, and, yes, I’m not discounting that this time could be a little bit stressful, we’ve got to take some time to appreciate what we have and not get sucked into whether it’s social media or even talking with friends the stuff that isn’t good, because there’s still a lot we can count as blessings with whatever we have today.
So, again, we started this off by saying don’t do the things that cause problems to your immune system, don’t work against it, and I will say that our thoughts, and this isn’t — I’m not a foofy, kind of new-age type of person, I’m pretty logical and analytical and I focus just on the research, but the research is really conclusive to say if we’re ruminating on stuff that causes stress, we cause major problems in our metabolism and immune function and inflammation levels. So, find some stuff to be grateful for and people that lift you up and help lift other people up and by doing that you will feel better, and you are going to support your immune function in ways you may not realize.
Tom, that was awesome. I’m glad — usually we do a power minute at the end, but you hit the nail on the head as far as gratitude and looking at all the things you should be grateful for and all the people around you and things you have versus all the things that might not be going right so that was awesome.
Thanks, Jamie. Thanks, David.
Thanks for joining us for this episode. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on our conversation today and how you approach this aspect of healthy living in your own life, what works for you, where do you run into challenges, where do you need help.
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Life Time Talks is a production of Life Time — Healthy Way of Life. It is produced by Molly Schelper with audio engineering by Peter Perkins and sound consulting by Coy Larson. A big thank you to the team who pulls together each episode and everyone who provided feedback.
The information in this podcast is intended to provide broad understanding and knowledge of healthcare topics. This information is for educational purposes only and should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of advice from your physician or healthcare provider. We recommend you consult your physician or healthcare professional before beginning or altering your personal exercise, diet or supplementation program.