Just in case the cold weather and a few sniffles are luring you toward the couch in front of the TV, you may want to stop and read Wall Street Journal health writer Laura Landro’s article in today’s “Personal Journal” section first.
Regular workouts may help fight off colds and flu, reduce the risk of certain cancers and chronic diseases and slow the process of aging.
Who knew? Well, most of us knew, we just haven’t been convinced. But Landro’s piece is stuffed — no offense to couches or potatoes — with evidence from new research, including data on fitness v the common cold. The fit, it turns out, have fewer and less severe colds, of shorter duration than the afflictions of their less-fit fellow creatures.
No pill or nutritional supplement has the power of near-daily moderate activity in lowering the number of sick days people take,” says David Nieman, director of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab in Kannapolis, N.C. Dr. Nieman has conducted several randomized controlled studies showing that people who walked briskly for 45 minutes, five days a week over 12 to 15 weeks had fewer and less severe upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds and flu. These subjects reduced their number of sick days 25% to 50% compared with sedentary control subjects, he says.
Medical experts say inactivity poses as great a health risk as smoking, contributing to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, depression, arthritis and osteoporosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 36% of U.S. adults didn’t engage in any leisure-time physical activity in 2008.
Even lean men and women who are inactive are at higher risk of death and disease. So while reducing obesity is an important goal, “the better message would be to get everyone to walk 30 minutes a day” says Robert Sallis, co-director of sports medicine at Fontana Medical Center, a Southern California facility owned by managed-care giant Kaiser Permanente. “We need to refocus the national message on physical activity, which can have a bigger impact on health than losing weight.”
Researchers are also investigating whether exercise can influence aging in the body. In particular, they are looking at whether exercise lengthens telomeres, the strands of DNA at the tips of chromosomes. When telomeres get too short, cells no longer can divide and they become inactive, a process associated with aging, cancer and a higher risk of death.
A companion article goes further, suggesting that “spurring more exercise out of the half of Americans who are already active is just as important as coaxing the sedentary off the sofa.” The jury on this, however, is still out. For the time being, you could focus on warding off the January chest cold and stretching out the telomeres.