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Always got a cold or flu? Get more exercise...

If you are physically active for about an hour a day, you'll halve your chances of getting a cold compared with if you usually don't get up from your sofa or chair. American sports scientist David Nieman discovered this when he did a small human study thirty years ago, which was published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. The publication does not make it clear how exactly exercise protects against colds, but we've looked at more recent studies and have some ideas.

Nieman got 18 overweight physically inactive women to walk briskly for 45 minutes 5 times a week for 5 weeks [Exercise]. A control group of 18 comparable women did not walk.

Nieman examined the participants just before the exercise programme started, halfway through and just after it ended. During the programme the women recorded how many days when they were bothered by upper respiratory tract infections - in other words, the common cold.

The women in the control group had a cold for 7 of the days in the 5 weeks, the walkers only for 3.6 days.

Always got a cold or flu? Get more exercise...

The participants' maximal oxygen uptake [VO2max] hardly increased as a result of the walking, but their heart rate did decrease with gentle exercise, which meant that their cardiovascular system had become a little more efficient.

Always got a cold or flu? Get more exercise...

The greater the reduction in heart rate as a result of moderate exercise, the fewer days of having a cold the women reported.

Always got a cold or flu? Get more exercise...

The most likely explanation is that exercise stimulates immune cells – and then above all Natural Killer Cells – to attack viruses. Nieman looked at the concentration of immune cells and Natural Killer Cells in the blood, but this revealed little. [Table]

This article may explain why.

Int J Sports Med. 1990 Dec;11(6):467-73.

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