Practical tips to lower your risk of getting sick

How managing stress, staying active, and sleeping enough may help

Trying to avoid the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

You’re probably already practicing social distancing. And you’re most likely washing your hands regularly and thoroughly. (That means scrubbing all surfaces—including the backs of your hands, under your nails, and between your fingers—with soap and water for 20 seconds.)

Federal authorities have released a list of tips to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus, like not touching your face, coughing into the inside of your elbow, and avoiding non-essential travel.

Here’s what else may help keep your immune system in working order. (While these studies haven’t tested the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, managing stress, staying active, and getting enough sleep can’t hurt.)

Managing stress. “In a series of experiments, people reported their stress levels first and were then exposed to a bug,” Bruce Barrett, professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin, told Nutrition Action in September 2019. (In those experiments, researchers used strains of viruses that cause the common cold.)

“People who rated themselves as more stressed were more likely to have the bug take up shop and replicate and to have worse cold symptoms.” Ditto for those who were unemployed or having marital problems, or who had other stressful experiences.

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak, you’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories about the pandemic.
  • Take care of yourself by stretching, meditating, deep breathing, and exercising regularly. Eat balanced meals and avoid drugs and alcohol.
  • Take time to unwind. Read a book or spend time on a hobby you enjoy.
  • Connect with friends and family. Call your loved ones regularly or use video calling to stay in touch.

Exercise regularly. “The data show that people who exercise regularly get fewer respiratory infections,” said Barrett.

In two studies, he randomly assigned roughly 560 people to a control group, to do daily moderate-​intensity exercise, or to reduce stress via meditation for four to eight months. Compared to the control group, the meditators reported 20 percent fewer respiratory infections, and the exercisers’ illnesses were 23 percent shorter (the equivalent of being sick for 1½ fewer days during a weeklong illness). (Granted, the study wasn’t “blinded,” so those groups could have expected to avoid colds or get well faster.)

“I can’t say that we’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that these things work,” said Barrett. “But the body of evidence is such that we’re pretty sure they do. Exactly how much, we don’t know. Who will benefit the most? We don’t know. But there’s no downside to exercising or practicing stress reduction.”

Get enough sleep. In one study, researchers monitored the sleep patterns of 164 people for a week. “Then we shot the cold virus into their nose, quarantined them in a hotel for five days, and tracked who got sick,” Aric Prather, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, told Nutrition Action in September 2019.

“The odds of getting sick were four times higher in people who slept six hours or less a night than in people who slept seven hours or more. And that was after accounting for factors that are linked with getting a cold, like age, stress, and exercise.”

“These results lend support to the idea that sleep is critical to health,” adds Prather.

Photos: PimanKrutmuang/stock.adobe.com, Nestor/stock.adobe.com.

The information in this post first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.


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