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Can exercise and meditation prevent cold and flu?

It's a badge of honor for me that I survived 23 years of blustery cold Wisconsin winters, and that even long icy, snowy walks didn't keep me from class during college. (Most of the time.) I also have vivid memories of lots of red, runny noses; in that type of climate it's almost impossible to escape the winter months without getting the sniffles and, worse yet, finding yourself holed up in a bedroom with a box of Kleenex and a jar of Vicks at least once.

I was interested, then, to hear about new University of Wisconsin-Madison research showing that regular exercise and meditation appeared to help older adults in very cold weather (i.e. a Wisconsin winter) reduce their number of respiratory infections. As a HealthDay News article explains:

The study involved mostly white women who were not already meditating or doing moderate exercise more than once a week. They were randomly broken into three groups:  one-third did not change their habits; one-third started an eight-week program of moderate exercise, such as running on a treadmill and biking, for 45 minutes a day with weekly training sessions; the rest spent the same amount of time in mindfulness meditation, which included yoga, stretching, walking and other activities with an instructor and on their own.

The researchers followed the participants for one cold and flu season and asked them to call at the first sign of an illness and keep a diary of their symptoms.

During the season, the results showed, those who meditated had 27 episodes of acute respiratory illness and a combined total of 257 days of illness; those who exercised had 241 sick days and 26 episodes. That compared to 40 episodes and 453 sick days for those who did not change their habits.


...The numbers all suggested that exercise and meditation reduce respiratory illness, [lead researcher Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD] said. "This trial convinced me that they worked," he added.

The study, which appears in the current issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, was small (149 participants), and only implies an association between exercise, meditation and illness prevention. It also doesn't explain why the activities might provide this kind of benefit, though Barrett said his thinking is that "mindfulness meditation would reduce perceived stress and that exercise would work through more physiological pathways [to improve] the immune system."

More study is obviously needed, but it's still pretty cool to think that there could be an easy, inexpensive way to protect yourself from cold and flu.

Previously: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes usResearch shows working out may benefit work life and CDC report shows exercise becoming a popular prescription among doctors
Photo by MissMessie

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