Exercise: How To Avoid Getting Sick By Lowering Stress

You already know the basics of dodging sickness: get a good nights sleep and wash your hands thoroughly and often. (It takes 15 seconds of scrubbing to wipe out germs, by the way.) Garlic, vitamin C, and even chicken soup may also help prevent or reduce the duration of the common cold, though most research sugges

ts that the ben

efits of each are modest. Some newer research also shows probiotics may be protective, though experts are still sorting out which strains and amounts are beneficial. But if youre really intent on sidestepping illness, meditation may be the best way to stay cold free, says Dr. Bruce Barrett, a professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin. In his research, hes found that mindfulness meditation can lower risk for common respiratory infections by up to 60% by combating immune system-crippling stress. Daily exercise offers similar immune-boosting benefits, Barrett and other experts say. People who exercise 30 to 45 minutes a day experience a 40% to 50% reduction in the number of days they get sick, says Dr. David C. Nieman, director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus.

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For the past three decades, Nieman has conducted more than 100 studies on the immune system benefits of physical activity. Whether youre fond of fast walking, running, swimming or weight training, he says, exercise appears to pump up your bodys built-in defenses. Related Stories 

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 Within minutes of starting your exercise routine, your bodys circulating levels of white blood cells, natural killer cells and other sickness-fighting agents increase, Nieman says. Likening them to the militarys special operations forces, he says these immune system warriors seek out and attack invading viruses or bugs. The more active you are, the

more active your imm

une system tends to be. But its possible to get too much of a good thing. Exercising for prolonged stretches without a break eventually puts stress on the immune system. Du

ring the week or two after running a marathon, we see infection rates doubling or even rising sixfold, Nieman says. The human body wasnt designed for long stretches (90 minutes or more) of unrelenting vigorous exercise, he explainsan

d this is coming from a guy whos run 58 marathons. Once your body is pushed to the point that muscle glycogen becomes deple

ted, levels of stress hormones and inflammation both spike. These suppress your immune system, leaving you exposed to illness. But even intense exercise is fine as long as youre taking breaks between bouts. Nieman has looked into various forms of interval training as well as sports like tennis. He says you can train or play for hours as long as youre giving your body periods of intermittent rest. As you might expect, long periods of sitting or inactivity are detrimental to the immune system. When people sit around a lot, thats

when you see infection rates go up, he says. If youre already sick, you need to rest, Nieman says. But for everyone else, moving is one of the best ways to keep well. Most Popular on TIME  1 Coronavirus Death Toll Rises to 170 in China  2  Americans Trapped in Wuhan Angry With U.S. 3 We Can Only Process Kobe Bryant's Death by Being Honest About His Life  Contact us at editors@time.com.