Cold and flu season runs from about October to March in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s when we tend to head indoors where drier, trapped air can circulate viruses more easily. Add the constant possibility of another COVID-19 surge, and you get a recipe for plenty of sniffles and potentially far worse health outcomes.
If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we aren’t completely at the mercy of menacing microbes. There are a few things you can do to stay healthy, even when everyone around you seems to be coughing and sneezing.
- Exercise regularly
- Rest properly
- Sleep better
- Eat right
- Reduce stress
Swimmers have a secret weapon to help stave off the worst of winter: swimming itself. Exercise is one of the best ways to keep your immune system running at full tilt and primed to fight off any pathogens you may encounter.
According to a 2011 study of the lifestyle habits (diet, exercise, and exposure to stress) of more than 1,000 participants completed at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, physical activity was singled out as the leading factor that predicted whether an individual came down with an upper respiratory ailment.
The study found that those participants who worked out at least five days per week had a 43% lower risk of developing an upper respiratory tract infection during the 12-week study period when compared with largely sedentary participants who worked out less than once per week. And we’re not talking massive amounts of exercise either; a workout was defined as at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk. The average Masters swimmer who swims for about an hour three or four times per week is well exceeding that parameter.
Why exactly exercise has this effect on the body is another question, and it seems that exercise stimulates the immune system to become more alert and stay vigilant for pathogenic invaders. An immune system that’s primed and ready can jump on a threat straight away and nip a potential infection in the bud.
While exercise is super important to keeping your immune system humming along, rest is an equal component that shouldn’t be shortchanged either. This is where the Goldilocks proposition comes in—some exercise is good, but too much can overtax the body and can actually suppress the immune system, leading to increased inflammation and a loss of ability to fight infection. This is why some elite athletes find that they develop a cold sore or get sick right after a major competition—the body is knocked back by that extreme exertion and needs some time to rest and rejuvenate before it can properly defend against a pathogen.
It’s similar to the chronic immune system suppression that develops when you’re overtraining, a fairly common problem among Masters swimmers who are trying to excel in many arenas at once: sports, work, family, and social settings. It can be difficult to discern exactly where the line lies between too much and not enough when it comes to exercise but listen to your body. If you’re feeling constantly run down or seem to be fighting a cold often, that might mean you’re working too hard and need to rest more.
And it’s worth noting that being cold won’t make you sick. That old wives’ tale is just that—a story. It’s still best to bundle up properly if you’ll be spending time in the elements, but simply spending time in the cold won’t give you a cold.
In fact, growing evidence about the benefits of cold-water swimming suggest that getting cold on the regular may support a healthy immune system. As with exercise, cold immersion stresses the body in such a way that it can prime the immune system to fight back. But as with exercise, you need to be careful not to overdo it; swimming in very cold water has risks and it’s best to work up to it slowly and with knowledgeable peers alongside you.
Rest, or giving a workout a miss when you’re doing too much is one thing, but sleep is another. Sleep is a fundamental piece of the whole-health puzzle, and most American aren’t getting enough; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a third of all adults in the United States are sleep deprived. “More than 35% of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night – and 1 in 20 has fallen asleep at the wheel in the past month,” the agency reports.
While drowsy driving is one obvious detriment to health that can arise from not enough sleep, it’s not the only one. During sleep is when your body repairs damaged cells and literally takes out the molecular trash. This has big implications for how the immune system functions. If you’re not sleeping enough, your immune system can’t function optimally.
While the optimal amount of sleep you need can vary quite a bit from what someone else needs, for most adults, aiming for 7 to 9 hours of high-quality sleep per night is an ideal goal. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that adults need at least seven hours of sleep per night. Shortchanging yourself by even just an hour per night can lead to long term health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and an increased risk of cancer.
Another critical piece of the immune support puzzle is eating right. And in the context of immune health, opting for a plant-based, whole foods diet is generally viewed as your best course of action. Lifestyle eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet, which feature plenty of fresh veggies, whole grains and legumes, and some lean protein and healthy fats are perennial dietitian favorites because they offer the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals your body needs to run optimally. Plus, this approach is sustainable and delicious.
If you’re exercising regularly, you’ll likely need more calories to fuel all that activity than you would if you were sedentary. When in doubt, visit with a registered dietitian to get tailored advice for your body and goals.
Lastly, reducing stress can also help keep your immune system humming along at top performance. While some stress, when administered in controlled amounts, helps stimulate the immune system to perform at top capacity, chronic stress, such as many people experience day in and day out with work and other obligations, can take a major toll on how your immune system functions.
Taking a step back and engaging in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other stress-busting activities, can help alleviate stress and keep your immune system primed and ready for action. Removing that excess stress can reduce inflammation throughout the body, which helps boost immune function.