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7 Daily Habits That Help Fight Off Viruses

Taking these steps every day can bolster your health and immune system

spinner image Close up of a bowl of bran cereal with berries.
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Breakfast: Unsweetened bran cereal with berries

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Fiber is a nondigestible carbohydrate that feeds the good bacteria in your gut. And when the little buggers are happy, they help keep the immune system ready when needed. A half-cup of wheat bran has 12.5 grams of fiber, and by adding berries, you'll earn a few more. Plus, blueberries and other dark-colored berries are rich in flavonoids, antioxidants that improve the health of macrophages and other virus-eating cells.

A brisk walk

"Immune cells circulate the body during exercise and for two or three hours afterward,” says David Nieman, director of Appalachian State University's Human Performance Lab. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of cycling, swimming, jogging or walking that's brisk enough to make you breathe hard.

Post-workout smoothie or salad

At the start of the pandemic, Helen Messier, a California-based family practitioner and immunologist, added a daily all-plant smoothie to her diet that included a number of different fruits and vegetables. You should, too. “Nutritionally, variety is the most important thing,” she says. “So I try to get in at least 10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day."

Stress is a high-powered immune suppressant that floods your body with corticosteroids, the same class of compounds doctors prescribe to treat autoimmune diseases. “We use corticosteroids for lots of allergic diseases,” says Mark Ansel, professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Think of steroid creams for itchy rashes or the corticosteroids in an asthma inhaler. They work by suppressing the immune system — not what you want if you're trying to quell an army of viral invaders.

Consider taking up a mind-body activity such as yoga, tai chi or meditation. In one study, adults cut stress with eight weeks of mindfulness training and, as a result, they were 20 percent less likely to experience respiratory infection. If the zen arts aren't for you, then gardening, painting and other hands-on hobbies can also work.

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Visit friends — virtually or outdoors

Emerging research indicates that loneliness and social isolation can increase inflammation throughout your body. Experts aren't entirely sure how, but they do know that the effect appears to increase with age. If the weather's nice, consider scheduling a socially distanced walk in the park (with a mask on, of course). Otherwise, video chats on Zoom or Google Hangouts can fill the gap until sunnier days return.

Dine with the fishes

Omega-3 fatty acids — the kind found in oily fish like mackerel, fresh tuna, sardines and salmon — can measurably reduce levels of inflammation in older adults, according to a review from researchers in Italy. And animal studies indicate that dietary fish oil can increase the health and circulation of antibody-producing B cells.

Begin a screen-free wind-down

Sleep is critical for immune health. So in order to avoid difficulty falling asleep, turn off your phone, tablet and computer three hours before bedtime. “Those digital devices emit blue light, which suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin,” Messier says. Though you can use a blue-light blocker for your device, a book and a hot bath are excellent, and more natural, ways to prep for slumber.

Plus 6 Things You Should Never Do Again

1. Pass a sink without washing your hands.

After just two hours of touching door handles, shopping carts and other public surfaces, your hands have “basically the greatest number of organisms you can hold,” says microbiologist Marc Verhougstraete. Aim to sanitize or wash your hands every hour when out in public.

2. Leave home without a pen in your pocket.

Most flu viruses can live on nonporous surfaces for a day or two, meaning that the pen the waiter hands you with the check can pass cold and flu germs. Keep your own plastic ballpoint pen with you so you can avoid touching the communal pen at the bank or restaurant.

3. Wake up to an alarm clock.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, squirted rhinovirus up people's noses and monitored their sleep for six days. Those who slept fewer than five hours on average were 4.5 times as likely to become infected as those who slept more than seven hours.

4. Drive when you could walk.

Researchers comparing inactive people with those who walked briskly nearly every day found that people who rarely walked took twice as many sick days over a three-month period.

5. Smoke a cigarette.

Just in case you need another reason to quit: Studies show COVID-19 patients with a history of smoking are 91 percent more likely than never-smokers to die or reach critical condition.

6. Eat buffet style.

Filling your plate from open chafing dishes and using serving utensils that everyone else is touching and breathing over may increase your risk of picking up a virus. Try hard to avoid shared food.

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