We all know people who never seem to catch a cold or get the flu, while the rest of us constantly cough and sniffle our way through feeling miserable. It could be these folks know something we don't. Research suggests a slew of immune-boosting habits can bolster your resistance to disease-causing bugs and wage war against harmful inflammation, keeping you healthy all year long. Here’s what people who never seem to get sick do to stay well—whether it’s during the colder months of the year or a summer heat wave:
1. They stay rested
Cheating on sleep leads to more colds, suggests research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. People who slept less than seven hours a night were three times more likely to catch a bug than those who put in 8-plus hours of shut-eye at night, researchers found. “Seven to nine hours seems to be optimal,” says study author Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the university.
2. They get the flu shot
“It’s the best way to improve your immune profile,” says Williams Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. The vaccine, which is approved for all adults, is effective 50 to 60 percent of the time in preventing flu and may also reduce the severity of symptoms. What’s more, the vaccine lowers a person’s risk for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or other major cardiac event—including death—by about a third in the year after receiving the shot, research shows. Although the vaccine is reformulated every year in anticipation of what scientists believe will be the dominant circulating strain, even if it’s not a perfect match, you’ll get at least partial protection, Dr. Schaffner says.
3. They don’t smoke
You know you shouldn’t, anyway, but consider this benefit of kicking the habit: You’ll get sick less often, Dr. Cohen says. Cigarette smoke appears to damage the mucus membranes, which act as the frontline barrier to infectious agents, making smokers twice as likely to catch a cold, and several times more likely to develop the flu. Smoking also suppresses the immune system overall, leading not only to heart and lung disease, but also contributing to cancers of the bladder, blood, cervix, colorectal, esophagus, kidney, larynx, liver, lung, and others.
4. They get sweaty
A study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that postmenopausal women who exercised regularly lowered their risk of colds, compared with sedentary women who were taught a stretching routine. Exercisers had about half the number of colds that stretchers had over the course of the year. Physical activity boosts increase immune cells in the blood and saliva. Aim for moderately intense activity, 45 minutes a day, five days a week to get the perk.
5. They wash and wash and wash
Many microbial threats can be washed away, lowering the risk for illness. And plain soap and warm water gets the job done, according to a study from the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. The research showed that people who used antimicrobial cleansers had no fewer colds than those who wash with regular soap. Schaffner suggests washing your hands each time you come inside, and use hand-sanitizing gels that contain alcohol when you can’t get to a sink. The CDC recommends scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.
6. They stay connected
A robust social life can help you stay healthy. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon exposed a group of people to the cold virus and waited to see who would come down with the sniffles. The least likely to get sick were people who had a diverse array of social networks—think: book clubs, bridge groups, and faith communities. Having six or more such ties gave people the greatest edge against illness. People with three or fewer such relationships were almost four times as likely to succumb to the bug. “When people with social support face adversity, they are less likely to get sick and less likely to die than people who don’t have social support,” Dr. Cohen says. Researchers chalk up the results to friendship’s stress-buffering effects.
7. They like to laugh
Those old "Frasier" reruns could rev your immune response. In a study from Western Kentucky University, healthy women who watched videos featuring funny men like Robin Williams showed significantly greater activity of their body’s infection-fighting NK cells—a fundamental part of the immune system— than women who saw a tourism video.
8. They enjoy a drink
Drinking a glass or two of wine has been shown to be good for your heart health. But it’s also associated with a lower risk for respiratory illnesses, says Dr. Cohen, who has studied the effect. Harvard University School of Public Health researchers found that red wine was particularly protective against colds, probably due to the anti-inflammatory action of the phenol, resveratrol. Doctors aren’t suggesting that patients start drinking for this reason, but if you do enjoy wine, you are getting an added immune boost. Just keep in mind that drinking more than two glasses a day raises the risk for infections.
9. They stay positive
Carnegie Mellon researchers found that people who were content and relaxed were three times more likely to avoid a cold than those who were depressed, anxious, or angry. The explanation: Positive attitudes lower stress hormones like cortisol that make people more prone to illness. Try cultivating a more optimistic outlook to keep illness at bay.
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