In a remarkable study published in 2012 in the Annals of Family Medicine by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers found that both exercise and meditation can reduce the severity and frequency of colds and flu, reducing episodes of illness by 50%.
Researchers split 149 people, mostly white women with an average age of 59, into three groups. One group exercised 45 minutes daily, another group practiced mindful meditation at least 45 minutes each day, and a control group did neither.
Meditators and exercisers missed fewer days of work due to illness.
The study lasted from September 2009 to May 2010. In that time, the control group missed 67 days of work because of Acute Respiratory Illnesses (ARI) like the flu or common cold. Meanwhile, exercisers missed 32 days and meditators missed 16 days. According to the National Instituted of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the common cold is the leading cause of doctor visits and missed days of school and work.
When they did get sick, meditators experienced milder symptoms than non meditators.
A related study by the same group found that meditation has a more profound impact on reducing the frequency and severity of illnesses than exercise.
“My thinking is that mindfulness meditation would reduce perceived stress and that exercise would work through more physiological pathways [to improve] the immune system,” Physician Bruce Barrett, author of the study and associate professor in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine..
The second report, downloadable here, proposes the following answer for why meditation in particular is so much more effective in reducing symptoms and severity of colds and flu:
“Quality of Life and Function during ARIs appeared to be improved with both exercise and meditation, consistent with the known and hypothesized health benefits of these behaviors. The additional impact of meditation on our measures of Function and Quality of Life beyond Symptom Severity reduction may be an important finding. This effect may reflect the psychological and perceptual benefits of mindfulness meditation, which help people to be more aware of bodily sensations without being distressed by them.”