6 Easy Ways to Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

by Sheryl Kraft

Germs can easily escape and spread. Cover up!

Flu shot - check. Wash hands often - check. Get enough sleep - who, me??

I try to do all I can to avoid spending the winter months sidelined with a cold or the flu; I really do. But sometimes despite my best efforts, colds happen.

Think about it: windows are closed to keep the cold air out, and thousands of nasty germs take that as their cue to multiply and destroy. Our health habits, though well meaning, often get shelved for various reasons.

Flu shots are not foolproof. How well they work can vary widely from season to season, depending on who is being vaccinated and how well the virus strains in the vaccine match up with the viruses circulating in the community. The vaccine was about 52 percent effective during the last flu season and about 60 percent effective the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, the vaccine can also lessen flu symptoms if you do get sick.

So, what's a good-intentioned, hopefully healthy person to do?

1. Exercise and meditate (not necessarily in that order).
New research suggests that regular exercise and meditation may be among the best ways to reduce acute respiratory infections. Not only can these two things keep colds at bay, but they can also make your boss happy by allowing you to miss fewer days of work. What's more, the meditators, when they did fall ill, seemed to suffer less and feel sick for less time.
Run on the treadmill, do yoga, walk, stretch - and sniffle less. Seems like a win-win, no?

MORE: Which Kind of Yoga Class is Right For Me?

2. Get Your Share of Protein.
I'm not a protein lover, but instead tend to gravitate toward foods that are high in carbs. Might be time to change that. Protein is important - especially now. Why? It helps your body to produce immune cells, which in turn help fight infection. Try to incorporate a little protein each time you sit down for a meal: good sources include fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, lentils, beans and tofu. An added bonus is that many of these foods also contain valuable infection-fighting zinc and magnesium.

3. Minimize Stress.
This is your body on stress: Certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released. Your heart rate accelerates like a racing engine. Your digestion slows. Major muscle groups get a burst of blood flow, giving them energy and strength (hence the fight-or-flight response). Whew. That's a lot for a body to endure. Ideally, your system's natural relaxation response will return your body back to normal once the perceived "threat" is gone. But chronic stress? That's another story: It can impede this response, putting lots of wear and tear on many of your body's systems. Your immune system, for one, is sadly compromised, making it tougher to fight off germs. (Convinced? Try some meditation to deal with your stress.)

MORE: Managing Stress

4. Be Anti-Social.
While it's true that being around friends can boost good health, now might be the time to steer clear of people - if they're coughing or sneezing, that is. Staying three feet or more away will help keep you in the "safe zone," away from the immediate spray of their germs. And if they want to shake your hand, try to politely circumvent the issue instead, with a slight bow, both hands pressed together in front. Who knows? You might start a whole new trend. (If you can't get away with a bow, that's the time to discretely bring out the hand sanitizer.)

5. Carry Your Own Stash.
Cold and flu viruses are sneaky little critters. One way they make their way into your body is through hand-to-hand contact. Do you really know who last touched that pen at the bank, the magazine in the waiting room, that crisp new $10 bill the cashier is handing you? If you touch something that someone who is sick also touched, the bugs can be transmitted when you unknowingly touch your mouth, nose, eyes or elsewhere on your face.
Try not touching your face for a day - you'll be surprised at how tough that can be. It's estimated that most of us do so one to three times every five minutes, which translates to 200 to 600 times each day! It's probably easier to carry your own pen and magazines or books, but if you do need to handle something from someone else, that's a handy time for some hand sanitizer.

6. Get Enough Zzzz's.
Getting less than seven hours of sleep a night can increase your susceptibility to germs. Sleep helps your body function at its optimal level, by producing protective substances that help you fight infections or inflammation.

MORE: The Truth About Sleep as We Age