Colds and flu

19 July 2012

Exercise may cut sick days from colds

Meditating or exercising could drastically cut the number of days people feel sick and miss work due to respiratory illnesses.

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Meditating or exercising could drastically cut the number of days people feel sick and miss work due to respiratory illnesses, according to new research.

The findings are based on a small study and need to be confirmed. "But if our results turn out to be true... that's monumental," said Dr Bruce Barrett of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the work.

"The only preventive things that we have at our disposal right now (for colds) are hand washing and avoiding sick contacts," said Dr Barrett.

How the study was done

To test whether exercise and positive thinking could prevent illnesses, Dr Barrett and his colleagues studied 149 people randomly assigned to one of three groups.

One group participated in an eight-week meditation programme, another did an eight-week exercise programme, and the last group received no special instruction.

The training groups had two-and-half hour weekly group sessions along with another five days each week of practising on their own for 45 minutes. The exercise group did aerobics, cycling, jogging, or brisk walking and the meditation group worked on mindfulness.

What the study showed

After the weeks of training, the researchers surveyed the participants throughout a flu season to track how many people got sick.

Among the people in the meditation group there were 27 bouts of respiratory illness throughout the study, compared with 26 cases in the exercise group, and 40 in the passive comparison group.

Those who meditated reported less-severe symptoms overall. And people spent only five days on average feeling sick if they worked out or meditated, compared to nine days in the comparison group, according to findings published in the Annals of Family Medicine.

"I suspect this is because they are better able to cope with the symptoms," said Dr James Carmody, a mindfulness researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, who was not involved in the study.

He said that when people are sick, they tend to dwell on how unpleasant their symptoms are.

"Keeping attention focused on the thoughts is going to add to the unpleasantness," he said. With mindfulness, "people learn to redirect their attention so they don't stay stuck on unpleasant thoughts."

The exercise and meditation groups also missed work less often during the study. The exercise group had 32 sick days due to colds and similar infections and the meditation group had 16, whereas the comparison had as many as 67.

Dr Barrett cautioned that because the study was the first of its kind, the findings are only preliminary and there still remains a "big if" as to whether exercise or meditation can prevent people from getting sick in the first place. He and his colleagues are starting another trial with a larger group of people. 

(Reuters Health, July 2012)

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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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