A new study that illustrates meditation's apparent ability to help prevent chest infections is a Godsend at this time of year. A small epidemic of non-flu acute respiratory infections--otherwise known as wicked coughs--has cropped up to make this flu season more miserable than usual. Until now, preventive strategies have been limited to not smoking, washing hands, avoiding sick people and staying well nourished. Now you can add meditation, and light exercise, to that list.
In a clever study--published this past summer in the Annals of Family Medicine by researchers at the University of Wisconsin--scientists found that people who participated in a mindfulness meditation program based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn missed an impressive 76% fewer days of work for acute respiratory infections (such as pneumonia) than people who did not meditate.
Another experimental group, who exercised lightly (mostly brisk walking or jogging for 45 minutes a day), missed 48% fewer days than the control group, who neither exercised or meditated.
In as much as exercise also reduces stress, it's possible the same mechanisms were at play for both groups. A series of previous studies demonstrated that perceived stress, negative emotion, and lack of social support predicted not only self-reported acute respiratory infection, but also its biomarkers such as viral shedding and inflammatory cytokine activity.
For this study, the meditators learned a form of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction based on Kabat-Zinn's work showing that increased awareness of physical, emotional and cognitive manifestations of stress may lead to a healthier mind-body response to stress. "Mindfulness" was defined as "a state of non-judgmental awareness, a heightened sensitivity to bodily sensation, and attention to one's own thoughts and emotions." Taught by Kabat-Zinn-trained practitioners, the course required two and a half hours of group instruction and 45 minutes of daily at-home practice. It was a commitment, but one that paid-off with increased productivity and better health.
Researchers did not create an uber-group that both exercised and meditated...but imagine the possibilities!