Can Exercise Prevent a Cold?

We can participate in the metabolism, which is usually a mysterious and unconscious realm...

 Through our limb activity, we can warm and balance too much stress, too much worry, too much media.

Can Exercise Help Prevent a Cold?  Invoking the Metabolic-Limb System

Adam Blanning, MD


One of the foundations of anthroposophic medicine is the difference between the proper qualities and activities of the head, and those of the metabolism.  The two are very different, each healthy in the proper place, each disease-provoking in the wrong activity.  The head—and with this is included the brain, the nerves, and the senses—should, by its very nature, be: receptive, taking in food, perceptions and ideas from the environment; and still, quieting one’s own activity to create the space for a new or different activity to come in.  Through this “nerve-sense” pole we find form, order, and wakeful perception.  Quiet thought and observation need these qualities.

The metabolism is truly the opposite pole—and this is what is so fascinating, because included within the metabolism are the digestive organs, the reproductive organs, and the limbs—metabolism, in its archetype, is active in reaching out and connecting with the world, meeting it, merging with it, warming, and dissolving it. Through our “metabolic-limb” pole we bring interaction, movement, and renewal to our bodies and to the world around us.  In order to manifest something in the world—to engage with the world—we need the warmth and strength of our metabolism.

So what does this have to do with exercise and winter colds?  Well, first we have to look at what happens when we get a cold.  We usually begin by feeling a little bit off, perhaps too worn out, chilled, achy, or with a scratchy throat.  These are actually all signs of an over-powering or imbalanced nerve-sense system, in that the forming, cooling, and hardening forces appropriate to the head have become too great.  We feel our muscles when we shouldn’t, feel our throat when we shouldn’t, notice our temperature (more precisely our lack of warmth) when we usually don’t think about it.  We have become imbalanced.  This initial phase, right there, is actually the illness.  The symptoms which come afterward—drippy nose, clogged head, need for sleep, perhaps some fever—are all signs of strongly metabolic processes, that are loosening, warming, and dissolving, coming up into the head.  While they are annoying and often inconvenient, they are actually the body’s tools for healing the original imbalance.  What has become too cooled and hard (us) has to be warmed and softened.  We have to dissolve a little.

We can help the body in its task, which helps us to move more quickly through a cold, or even to help prevent it in the first place, by consciously aiding the body in its rebalancing. We can participate in the metabolism, which is usually a mysterious and unconscious realm:

  • ·One way is to limit our stress (the nervousness, tight muscles, and difficulty sleeping we experience with stress should immediately tell you that this is too strong of a nerve-sense process).  And indeed, stress seems to increase our risk of getting colds and of missing work because of illness.[i]  Too much wakeful perception, needing to be receptive to too many demands (sensory or social) makes us sick.  This has to be balanced.

  • A good way to balance is to sleep more.  A study at Carnegie Mellon University[ii] showed that when people slept less than seven hours a night they were 2.9 times more likely to get sick than people who slept eight or more hours. Sleep is a metabolic activity, where our consciousness releases from the environment and our body can concentrate on working through what has come in through the course of the day. Sleep is anabolic, up-building.  And if you think you are starting to come down with an illness, going to bed a couple hours early will help you get a head start on rebalancing.  You are consciously giving the body what it needs, and creating a reprieve from taking too much in.

  • · And a third method to try to stay more balanced, and hence have to bring less loosening inflammation to your head through a cold, is movement with the limbs.  A study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine[iii] followed a thousand volunteers through a winter season.  These volunteers logged their exercise as well as their symptoms of runny nose, sore throat, coughing, fever, and headaches. They found that those people who were active for 20 minutes, at least five days of the week, experienced about 40% fewer illness days compared to those who were sedentary (defined as exercising less than one day a week). They balanced their head through their limbs.

Through our limb activity, we can warm and balance too much stress, too much worry, too much media.  This is such an important recognition because we are today in danger of becoming too nerve-sense in our overall being.  There are a million carefully planned and crafted sensory perceptions competing for our attention.  We need to consciously create space from them, or we will all get toxic.  Instead, love and honor your metabolic-limb activity.  Try to find a regular limb activity (preferably one that does really get you into motion and active engagement with the environment, like walking or running outside, raking leaves, digging in the garden, something that gets the blood flowing).  To make it even more potent, try to do it with warmth and some love.  This will be balancing on many levels at once, and will boost your chances of staying healthy through the winter cold season.


[i] Park SG et al.  A prospective study of work stressors and the common cold.  Occup Med (Lond.) 2010 Sep 10.

[ii] Cohen S et al.  Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.  Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169 (1): 62-67.

[iii] Nieman D et al.  Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults.  Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.077875.