Who knew meditation could be so handy during cold and flu season?

A small new study finds that mindfulness meditation and moderate exercise seem to have protective effects against cold and flu, with people who engage in the practices having less severe, shorter and fewer symptoms of acute respiratory infection -- and fewer days missed from work due to the sickness -- than people who don't engage in either practice.

Specifically, undergoing mindfulness training was linked with a 40 to 50 percent decrease in symptoms, while exercise was linked with a 30 to 40 percent decrease in symptoms, researchers reported, compared with people who did neither activity.

"The apparent 40 to 50 percent benefit of mindfulness training is a very important finding, as is the apparent 30 to 40 percent benefit of exercise training," study researcher Dr. Bruce Barrett, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a statement. "If this pans out in future research, the impact could be substantive indeed."

The study, published in the journal Annals of Family Medicine, included 149 people, most of whom were women, with an average age of 59. Fifty-one of them were assigned to have mindfulness meditation training for eight weeks, 47 were assigned to do moderate exercise for eight weeks (like biking or running), and 51 were not assigned to do anything.

Then, after the eight-week period, the researchers tracked study participants' symptoms during cold and flu season, and also collected nasal wash samples from them.

Researchers found that people who did meditation had 27 total "episodes" of cold or flu symptoms, lasting a total of 257 days. And the people who exercised had 26 total "episodes" of cold and flu symptoms, lasting 241 days. But the people who did neither exercise nor meditation had 40 total "episodes" of cold or flu symptoms, lasting 453 days.

Recently, a review of research published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science broke down what exactly it is about mindfulness meditation that seems to make us healthier. They deduced that mindfulness is able to promote regulation of attention, body awareness, self-awareness and regulation of emotion -- all of which help us in different aspects of our lives.

For more amazing facts about meditation, click through the slideshow:

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  • It Makes Your Brain Plastic

    Quite literally, sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain's ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input. For much of the last century, scientists believed that the brain essentially stopped changing after adulthood. But research by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson <a href="http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/publications/2008/DavidsonBuddhaIEEE.pdf" target="_hplink">has shown that experienced meditators exhibit high levels of gamma wave activity</a> and display an ability -- continuing after the meditation session has attended -- to not get stuck on a particular stimulus. That is, they're automatically able to control their thoughts and reactiveness.

  • It Increases Gray Matter

    A 2005 study on American men and women who meditated a mere 40 minutes a day <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">showed that they had thicker cortical walls than non-meditators</a>. What this meant is that their brains were aging at a slower rate. Cortical thickness is also associated with decision making, attention and memory.

  • It Can Be Better Than Sleeping

    In a 2006 study, college students were asked to either sleep, meditate or watch TV. They were then tested on their alertness by being asked to hit a button every time a light flashed on a screen. The meditators <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147167-2,00.html" target="_hplink">did better than the nappers and TV watchers</a> -- by a whole 10 percent.

  • It's Better Than Blood Pressure Medication

    In 2008, Dr. Randy Zusman, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital, asked patients suffering from high blood pressure to try a meditation-based relaxation program for three months. These were patients whose blood pressure had not been controlled with medication. After meditating regularly for three months, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2008/08/21/93796200/to-lower-blood-pressure-open-up-and-say-om" target="_hplink">40 of the 60 patients showed significant drops in blood pressure levels</a> and were able to reduce some of their medication. The reason? Relaxation results in the formation of nitric oxide which opens up your blood vessels.

  • It Can Protect Your Telomeres

    Telomeres -- the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes -- are the new frontier of anti-aging science. Longer telomeres mean that you're also likely to live longer. Research done by the University of California, Davis' Shamatha Project <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/24/meditation-ageing-shamatha-project" target="_hplink">has shown that meditators have significantly higher telomerase activity that non-meditators</a>. Telomerase is the enzyme that helps build telomeres, and greater telomerase activity can possibly translate into stronger and longer telomeres .

  • It Can Slow The Progression Of HIV

    A 2008 study on HIV positive patients found that, after an eight-week meditation course, patients <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080724215644.htm" target="_hplink">who'd meditated showed no decline in lymphocyte content</a> compared with non-meditators who showed significant reduction in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes or white blood cells are the "brain" of the body's immune system, and are particularly important for HIV positive people. The study also found that lymphocyte levels actually went up with each meditation session. However, due to the small sample size -- only 48 volunteers -- it's harder to draw definitive conclusions.

  • Its Pain Relieving Properties Beat MorphIne

    Earlier this year, a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist University found that <a href="http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-04-demystifying-meditation-brain-imaging.html" target="_hplink">meditation could reduce pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent</a>. Morphine and other pain-relieving drugs typically show a pain reduction of 25 percent. Meditation works by reducing activity in the somatosensory cortex and increasing activity in other areas of the brain. This study also had a small sample size, making it harder to draw definite conclusions.

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