Now that the holiday season is behind us and 2016 is underway we can focus on our goals and resolutions for the new year. Staying healthy is essential for achieving these goals, whatever they may be. Unfortunately, the natural spread of cold and flu viruses at this time of year can interfere with your plans. The good news is, there is much you can do to reduce your risk of getting sick, which I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
For starters, getting a flu vaccine is the most important thing you can do to prevent seasonal influenza (flu). And it’s not too late if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet. You can also protect yourself by not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth and by washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. You have probably been doing it wrong, so you may want to learn this song.
Exercise can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active. Research in animals and humans shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold and flu, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as a 30–60 minute walk or jog each day.
More exercise isn’t always better, though. Very vigorous and prolonged exercise can have the opposite effect. Athletes who engage in long, intense training tend to be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections. Research shows that immune function is depressed in the weeks leading up to and after running a marathon, resulting in an increased risk of becoming sick. The bottom line is that while exercise improves your immune system, very vigorous exercise may not.
Regular exercise also enhances the immune system response to the influenza vaccine. This means that the flu vaccine can be more effective in people who exercise. If you don’t exercise already, you can still benefit: one study showed that a single 45 minute exercise session can improve the immune response to the flu vaccine. You can get this benefit by going for a brisk walk before your flu shot.
Good nutrition is also important for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. In fact, one supplement company paid $23 million to settle a class action lawsuit regarding false claims that it prevented colds.
You can get benefits from two more common-sense recommendations: getting adequate sleep and reducing stress. Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. Sleep deprivation can also reduce the positive immune response to a vaccine. Another study showed that sleep following a vaccination enhanced the effectiveness of that vaccine. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to colds and the flu and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.
In order to have your best chance of staying healthy this year you should exercise every day, eat a healthy diet, manage your stress, and get enough sleep in addition to following the traditional advice to get a flu shot, wash your hands frequently, stay away from people who are sick, and stay home yourself if you are ill. As a bonus, many of these habits will also help you lose weight and reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers along with keeping you healthy this cold and flu season.
Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. But it doesn't have to be that way. What can I help you with? firstname.lastname@example.org | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr