Mindfulness meditation can reduce the burden of respiratory infections – and exercise may help too

I have had a nuisance upper respiratory infection this week that I am trying to get rid of before running the Great Barrier Island marathon this weekend. I have been trying to get lots of sleep, but of course, when you want to sleep, it becomes elusive. I am in a taper period, and I don’t feel great, so vigorous exercise isn’t really an option, though I have been walking. It got me thinking about how mindfulness can help with trying to get to sleep. But it also started me wondering about whether mindfulness and  / or exercise can help with these types of illnesses and infections. Turns out that they might just help.

This study compared severity of upper respiratory symptoms in a cold / influenza season  for 154 people over 50 years of age randomly allocated into 3 conditions: (i) 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training, (ii) 8 weeks of training in moderate-intensity sustained exercise, or (iii) a control group. They found that compared with the control group, global severity of illness during that cold and ‘flu season was significantly lower for the mindfulness meditation group, with a non-statistically significant trend for lower number of illness duration in days too. Although not statistically significant, the exercise group showed a lower trend for global severity of illness, and illness days compared to the control group. In terms of number of days missed from work, the control group took 67 upper respiratory symptom related days off in total across the participants in that group. For the exercise group, this fell to 32 days off work (statistically significant), and even further for the mindfulness group (16 days – statistically significant).

It seems as though mindfulness mediation can offer considerable benefits in reducing illness burden when considering the effects of respiratory-type illnesses. As well as personal health benefits, mindfulness meditation, and to a lesser extent, exercise can also offer socioeconomic benefits with respect to days taken off work as a result of respiratory symptoms.

The message for me is to keep focusing on my breath – but not to inhale too deeply. *coughcough*

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