If my Facebook feed is any indication, cold and flu season is far from over, even though we are experiencing warmer weather. Unfortunately, the natural spread of cold and flu viruses at this time of year can interfere with your springtime activities. Getting a flu vaccine is the most important thing you can do to prevent seasonal influenza (flu). If you didn’t get a flu shot this year, there is still much you can do to reduce your risk of getting sick.
For starters, you can 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. But there are additional steps you can take to fight cold and flu viruses.
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’s 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, something to think about next fall.
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.
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 flu shot. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to colds and 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.
You should definitely follow the traditional advice of getting a flu shot and washing your hands frequently. In addition, to have your best chance of staying healthy you should also exercise every day, eat a healthy diet, manage your stress, and get enough sleep. 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.
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