Meditation, Exercise May Decrease Cold Symptoms

Emma Hitt, PhD

July 09, 2012

July 9, 2012 — Training in mindfulness meditation and sustained moderate-intensity exercise appear to be associated with reduced illness severity and fewer days of missed work because of acute respiratory infections (ARIs), compared with doing nothing, according to the findings of a randomized trial.

Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD, from the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and colleagues report their findings in the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.

According to the researchers, enhancing general physical and mental health might reduce ARI burden.

"Evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation can reduce experienced stress and negative emotions," Dr. Barrett and colleagues write. "Similarly, both epidemiological and experimental studies have suggested that regular exercise may protect people from ARI illness."

The researchers sought to evaluate the ability of meditation or exercise to reduce the incidence, duration, and severity of ARIs in adults 50 years and older.

A total of 154 participants were randomized to 1 of 3 study groups approximately equal in size; 149 completed the trial. One group received 8 weeks of training in mindfulness meditation, another group received 8 weeks of training in moderate-intensity sustained exercise, and the third group served as an observational control group.

The standardized 8-week mindful meditation course involved group sessions (2.5 hours weekly) and at-home practice (45 minutes daily). The exercise intervention was similar to the meditation course in terms of time and location, but participants focused on achieving moderate-intensity sustained exercise, with a target rating of 12 to 16 points on a 6- to 20-point scale.

In the meditation group, there were 27 ARIs, resulting in 257 days of illness. In the exercise group, there were 26 ARIs, resulting in 241 days of illness; and in the control group, there were 40 ARIs, resulting in 453 days of illness.

ARI severity, measured on the Wisconsin Upper Respiratory Symptom Survey (WURSS-24), was 144 in the meditation group, 248 in the exercise group, and 358 in the control group.

Global severity was significantly lower in the meditation group than in the control group (P = .004). Duration of illness in the meditation group trended toward statistical significance, compared with the control group (P = .034). Severity and duration of illness were lower in the exercise group than in the control group, although the differences were not statistically significant (P = .16 and P = .032, respectively). The researchers had designated a P value of .025 as the cutoff for the rejection of the null hypothesis.

A total of 67 days of work were missed because of ARIs in the control group, 32 in the exercise group (P = .041), and 16 in the meditation group (P < .001). Viruses were identified from nasal washes in 53.8% of samples from the meditation group, 42.1% from the exercise group, and 54.3% from the control group. Neutrophil counts were similar in the 3 groups, whereas slightly higher interleukin-8 levels were detected in the meditation group than in the control group (P = .022).

"This ground-breaking randomized trial of meditation and exercise vs wait-list control among adults aged 50 years and older found significant reductions in ARI illness," Dr. Barrett and colleagues conclude.

The researchers note that one of the limitations of this study is that "participants in such a trial cannot be blinded to behavioral training interventions, thus allowing for the possibility of self-report bias."

However, they add that if "these results are confirmed in future studies, there will be important implications for public and private health-related policy and practice, as well as for scientific research regarding mechanisms of health maintenance and disease prevention."

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program of the National Center for Research Resources. Dr. Barrett was supported by career development grants from NCCAM and from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; another author is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at NIH. The other authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Ann Fam Med. 2012;10:337-346. Abstract

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