5 questions: Expert advice on staying healthy this winter

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Exercise is important to staying well this winter -- just wear extra layers if you pick an activity like iceskating at Dilworth Park's Rothman Ice Rink.

Are we really more at risk for getting sick in winter, or is that just the way it seems?

It turns out that viruses really do survive better when it's cold. Drexel University physician Leslie Everts points to research at Yale University that found rhinovirus – a common cause of what we call the common cold – reproduces more efficiently at lower temperatures. 

And then there’s flu season, which tends to peak during the winter.

So it’s prudent to take extra steps to protect yourself from illness this time of year. We recently talked to three Drexel experts to find out how best to do it.

Get plenty of sleep is the top advice from Everts, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine.

Eat your fruits and veggies, says nutritionist Stella Volpe, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition Science.

Get up and move, is the word from Kevin Gard, clinical professor of physical therapy and one of the people who heads Drexel’s Running Performance and Research Center.

Dr. Everts, what is the best way to jump-start your immune system?
Get enough sleep. We’re learning more and more about sleep and the immune system. In one study out of the University of California at San Francisco, researchers found that people who got less than six hours of sleep a night were more likely to get sick than people who got six to eight hours of sleep. This study was specifically done with regard to colds, but, in general, we can extrapolate to our immune system. If we don’t get enough sleep, our immune system doesn’t work as well.  Sleep really does make a difference. Also, listen to your body. If you’re tired, your body is telling you that you need to sleep.

What else is important to do?
Always wash your hands. Hand sanitizers are OK, but to stop the spread of gastrointestinal issues, you need soap and water. Soap and water are best.  Get a flu shot. If you’re sick, to prevent spread to other people, cough into your elbow, not your hand.

Eat your fruits and vegetables. I also think exercise is very important. Mentally, it makes people feel good. It gives people more energy, just in terms of well-being. Diet, exercise, and sleep are the three big things.

Another thing: Don’t smoke tobacco, and limit the use of alcohol.  This is important any time for maintaining your health.

If you can, take a vacation.  The limited sunlight of winter affects people’s moods, which can affect your health. Socialize with other people. Doing something fun and being happy, smiling, is never a bad thing.  

Dr. Volpe, what about those fruits and vegetables?
Although fruits and vegetables are available all year round, the types of fruits, in particular, change in the winter. What is most important for people to remember is to maintain (or try to increase, if their intake is low) consumption of fruits and vegetables in the winter, even if some of their favorites are not available. Ways to do this include:

  • Make soups and stews that include a variety of vegetables.
  • Make fruit smoothies with frozen berries  and fresh bananas.
  • Add fruit, such as bananas and pomegranates, to cereals or yogurt.
  • Enjoy a protein with a fruit (for instance, apple with peanut butter or almond butter).
  • Make stir-fries or burritos that include more vegetables.
  • Add fruits such as kiwi to salads.
  • Add vegetables to pastas and rice.
  • Bring fruit, such as bananas, apples and oranges, and/or carrots and celery (with peanut butter) to work for snacks.
  • In addition, do not forget that frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy and can be more economical (less waste). Finally, try new recipes with fruits and vegetables. You may find you eat even more fruits and vegetables by trying new recipes.

Dr. Gard, why does it seem harder to exercise in the winter?
For a variety of reasons - including the cold weather, less overall daylight, and the hustle and bustle associated with the holidays - most people are less active during the winter.  According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, more than 50 percent of Americans aren’t getting the recommended amount of exercise in the winter months.   This is bad for a number of reasons.  Exercise has been associated with improvements in strength, cardiovascular health, bone density, cognitive function, mood (including anxiety and depression), and control of chronic conditions such as diabetes, just to name a few. 

What’s the best way to get up and get moving when it's cold?
Most outdoor exercise can still be safely performed in the colder months. Just add more layers of clothing.  If you regularly exercise at the gym, don’t let the cold car ride to the gym deter you.  In both cases, the hardest part is getting out the door.  If you are typically an outdoor exerciser, but conditions are extremely cold or icy, find a gym, go to the mall to walk, or perform yoga or resistance exercise using body weight in your home.  The most important thing is to make exercise a regular part of your routine.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Schedule your exercise just as you would any other important activity. Don’t let anything interfere with it. 
  • Prepare. Lay out your exercise clothes the night before or place them in your work bag so they are ready to go when you are. 
  • Recruit a partner.  If you know someone is waiting for you, it’s harder to cancel.
  • Set a goal.  Write down the goal and post it somewhere prominent so you get frequent reminders.
  • Reward yourself.  Schedule a special treat like a massage when you complete a month of your routine.
  • Don’t let a missed day derail your entire fitness plan.  Get back on schedule as quickly as possible.

By sticking to your exercise routine over the winter, you’ll find that you have more energy, will feel better, and will be in better shape when the warmer weather returns.  Remember: No one ever regrets completing an exercise session; everyone regrets skipping one.

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