Exercise and the Common Cold

by Site Author

Every winter, usually twice a winter, I end up with a bad cold. Somehow, each and every time, the cold feels like ebola. For a week, I carry around a box of medicated tissues. I drag along a plastic bag filled with used tissues like a tail. It’s disgusting. Each time I try meds: zinc supplements, nasal decongestants, daytime pills, nighttime pills. None of it works. For a week, I suffer.

This winter has been different. I haven’t gotten one bad cold. And I think there’s a reason for that: I’ve exercised nearly every morning. I put together a short, 15–20 minute routine for myself, and I’ve been doing it nearly every day. The routine is just a short string of mobility exercises, agility exercises, and then some pushups, pullups, or squats. It’s taken discipline to wake up twenty minutes earlier each day, but I’ve come to love those twenty minutes. On days when I don’t get to exercise, I feel as though something is missing. The little workouts have become like a morning cup of coffee.

And I think that the daily exercise has helped me avoid a cold. Granted, my personal experience is not a randomized controlled trial. I also grew a beard this winter, the weather was especially mild, and it was not a bad flu season. Those factors certainly confound any conclusions I could draw from this one winter.

Still, some research suggests that moderate exercise boosts the immune system. To start with, there are some intriguing correlations. People who exercise are much less likely to report having a cold. A 1989 survey of subscriber’s to Runner’s World found that 61 percent felt that they suffered fewer colds since they started running, and only 4 percent felt that they suffered more colds.

Of course, that’s just one survey. What one would like here is a randomized controlled trial. Fortunately, one exists. A recent randomized trial evaluated the effect of moderate exercise on the common cold. The study was performed on 115 older, overweight women who were randomized to either an exercise group or a control group. The exercise group exercised for 45 minutes, 5 days a week, for an entire year. The control group met only once a week and barely exercised for that one hour. The experimenters then asked the participants whether they had suffered from a cold that year. In the end, 49 percent of the exercisers reported having no colds over the year, while only 31 percent of those in the control group reported having no colds.

So add this to the long list of benefits of exercise: fewer common colds. Yet more proof that, if exercise were a medication, the government would add it to the water supply.