Colds are not life-threatening, but they sure are a nuisance and they’re certainly inconvenient. In fact, colds are one of the most common reasons that people miss work, and for businesses, they’re a source of lost productivity. Despite advances in medical research, we have yet to snag a cure for the common cold. So, the best strategy is to prevent them. Is it possible? The average adult gets between 2 and 4 colds per year and children get more. What if we could reduce that frequency? You might wonder what role lifestyle plays in preventing the common cold. Are physically fit people less likely to catch a cold?
Being Physically Fit May Lower Your Risk
If you want to reduce your risk of upper respiratory infections, also known as the common cold, being physically fit gives you a leg up. A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reached this conclusion after following 1,000 adults of all ages. In the study, some of the participants exercised regularly while others did not. They found that subjects who exercised at least 5 days per week had 43% fewer days where they experienced cold symptoms relative to those who worked out only 1 day per week. Plus, their symptoms were milder.
This isn’t the only study that links physical activity with a lower risk of pesky colds. A Chinese study followed more than 1400 employees and found that leisure-time physical activity at least 3 days of the week was associated with a 26% reduction in the risk of suffering from at least one common cold compared to those who only exercised once per week.
These findings add to a growing body of evidence that exercise not only protects against chronic disease but short-term health problems, like colds, as well. Why might this be? Studies show that exercise boosts the activity of immune cells that fight viruses and other unwanted invaders, particularly natural killer cells, or NK cells. In fact, a study carried out by researchers at the University of Bath found that exercise can boost immune cells by up to 10-fold.
Although immune cells decline in number after a workout, they stay elevated for several hours. At first, scientists thought the post-workout decline in immune cells was indicative of immune suppression, but it appears that the immune system isn’t suppressed at all. Instead, the infection-fighting cells go “undercover” to areas of the body like the lungs where they aren’t as detectable but can still fight off respiratory infections.
Another way exercise may lower the risk of the common cold is by raising core body temperature. When your body temperature goes up, as during a workout, it makes it harder for bacteria and viruses to gain a foothold. Another theory is that the deep breathing you do when you work out helps expel bacteria and viruses from the lungs and upper respiratory tract, so they can’t cause infection.
Staying physically active could be a powerful strategy for preventing upper respiratory infections. Still, it’s best, as with everything, to practice moderation and not over-exercise. Some studies in marathon runners show participants are more likely to come down with a cold within 2 weeks after the big run. There seems to be a threshold beyond which exercise ceases to have a protective effect and may be detrimental. That’s not surprising since extreme exercise places enough stress on the body to elevate the stress hormone cortisol. One of the downsides to cortisol is it suppresses immune function.
Beyond Exercise: Lowering Your Risk of the Common Cold
Exercise may help you fight off the annoying viruses that cause you to cough and sneeze for days at a time, but you’ll lower your odds of a cold even more if you practice other healthy lifestyle habits. Other than physical activity, a factor that can significantly downgrade your odds of catching a cold is getting adequate sleep. Like exhausting exercise, lack of sleep hampers your body’s ability to fight off foreign invaders, including cold viruses. Ongoing lack of sleep can also raise cortisol, a known immune suppressor. Chronic, low-grade stress can do the same thing.
There are no magical foods that will reliably prevent a cold, although eating a healthy, nutrient-dense diet may help. You may have heard that vitamin C prevents the common cold. There’s little data to support that idea, although some studies show taking high doses of vitamin C can shorten the course of the common cold by a day or so. In fact, at least 7 studies found that vitamin C was no more effective than a placebo for shortening the duration of cold symptoms. Of course, you need enough vitamin C in your diet. A deficiency in vitamin C can dial back your body’s immune response.
Of course, there are common sense measures like washing your hands frequently and avoiding people who are sick. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to use an antibacterial soap to free your hands of cold viruses. Plain soap and water work if you wash your hands long enough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing your hands long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. If you use a hand sanitizer, it should contain at least 60% alcohol.
The Bottom Line
Exercise does more than just lower the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, it also reduces the likelihood that you’ll develop the common cold. As if you needed another reason to exercise, avoiding pesky and inconvenient colds is another one. Combine it with a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and stress management and you might just find that you’re sneezing and coughing less!
MedLine Plus. “Common Cold”
Food and Fitness Advisor. “Being fit decreases frequency and severity of colds”
BMC Public Health. 2018 Feb 27;18(1):294. doi: 10.1186/s12889-018-5203-5.
MedLine Plus. “Exercise and Immunity”
Science Daily. “Research debunks ‘myth’ that strenuous exercise suppresses the immune system”
CorePerformance.com. “How Exercise Affects Immunity”
WebMD.com. “Vitamin C for the Common Cold”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Wash Your Hands”
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