Sick of Getting Sick? Fight It with Exercise

New study finds working out cuts risk of colds in half

Feel like you catch every virus, bug and cold that passes through your workplace or kid’s classroom? A new study shows you can cut the number of days you spend sniffling, coughing and bed-ridden in half -- and it has nothing to do with how much Emergen-C, Echinacea or Airborne you take. Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine says you can reduce your chances of getting sick by working out regularly.

The study tracked 1,000 adults up to the age of 85 and found that people who are physically fit have fewer colds and, when they do get sick, have milder symptoms. People who are more likely to get sick, on the other hand, are those with not-so-great habits like stressing too much, not getting enough sleep and eating a crappy diet (i.e. acting like you’re allergic to fruits and vegetables). As you age your risk of getting sick slowly increases, but unless you’re hiding the fountain of youth in your backyard, there isn’t much you can do about that.

What you can do is hit the gym instead. In addition to beating back colds, the other benefits of working out including relieving stress, improving your mood, increasing your metabolism, boosting your energy levels and perhaps giving you a more svelte figure. Men, have an additional option to working out: Get hitched. The study also found that being older, male, and married seemed to reduce the frequency of colds. What would men do without us women to show them, among other things, that nachos do not make a balanced breakfast?

For those who are interested in getting fit to up your immunity, here’s what the researchers found. People who reported getting five or more days of exercise a week reduced their number of sick days by 43 percent. When comparing cardiovascular fitness, the scientists found that the fittest had 46 percent fewer days with colds than those who were the most out of shape. Do we even have to say it? Survival of the fittest, people. This, of course, coming from someone who hasn’t seen the inside of her gym in about a month. In my defense, I have been taking long walks with my dog -- and haven’t gotten sick yet this year.

This isn’t the first report to shed light on the connection between exercise and the immune system. Another study, this one by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, found that 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day (like jogging or a brisk walk) cut the risk of colds in half. It also boosted immunity over time. By the end of the year-long study, those who worked out were three times less likely to get sick. This seems to agree with the most recent study that suggests regular cardiovascular workouts are even more protective than a single bout of exercise.

Working out boosts the amount of immune cells that are released into our bloodstream. These cells are what the study’s lead author, David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, calls the marine corps of the immune system. They track down foreign invaders. When these foot soldiers circulate at a higher rate than normal, they can hunt down and destroy viruses more efficiently. Though this exercise-induced effect lasts for only a few hours after your sweat session, daily exercise has a cumulative effect that keeps the immune system ready and alert.

So if you feel like you’re always calling in sick to work, you might want to ease into an exercise routine. And it’s not like you have to train for a marathon to reap the benefits. Walking at a pace that gets your heart rate up is all the exertion you need. And if you like having all those sniffly, exhausted days off from work, well, who says you can’t still call in sick? Don’t call it playing hooky. Consider it instead a mental health day.

What do you swear by to keep from getting sick? Chime in below.

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