NEWS FLASH: The Best Immunity Booster, Sports for a Healthier Brain, Fitness on Food Labels

Every week, we’re bringing you a roundup of the latest health and wellness news to hit the wire. This week, we look at the best way to boost your body’s defenses during flu season, how athletes from organized sports have healthier brains, and how information about calories and exercise on food labels could make a dent in the obesity epidemic.

Fitness is your secret weapon against colds and flu

If you’re looking to make it through this cold and flu season without the misery, make exercise your friend, stated this article in Time.

Of all the lifestyle factors that decrease the number of days of the common cold, being physically active and fit is the most important, said David Nieman, DrPH, a professor of public health and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University.

Nieman’s research on exercise and immunity found that 30 minutes of brisk walking increased the circulation of natural killer cells, white blood cells and other immune system champions.

But, he said, this pathogen-fighting response is short-lived, with these immune cells retreating to the tissues they came from about three hours after exercise.

That’s why regular exercise is so important, Nieman said, to remain healthy at this time of year. He prescribes 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. (Weightlifting’s effect has not been studied.)

Just don’t get too much of a good thing, he said. Seventy-five minutes or more of intense exercise appears to raise stress hormones, negatively affecting the immune system.

Some good news about sports and brain health

The negative effects on athletes’ brains from contact sports and concussions have been a concerning topic in recent years. But a new Northwestern University study published in the journal Sports Health showed that without injury, athletes in a variety of sports from football to soccer to hockey have healthier brains than non-athletes.

“Playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment,” said senior author Nina Kraus, Ph.D., director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Specifically, athletes have a greater ability to tamp down background electrical noise in their brain to better process external sounds such as a teammate yelling a play or a coach calling from the sidelines, according to the study of 1,000, which included 500 Northwestern Division I athletes.

Kraus and her collaborators tracked brain activity while delivering speech syllables through earbuds, examining how big the responses to the sounds were relative to the background noise.

News of this improved, quieter nervous system could lead to athletic interventions for those who struggle with auditory processing, or “excessively noisy brains.” And improved function could mean that these athletes are better able to handle injury or other health problems, Kraus said.

This bag of chips requires 30 minutes on the treadmill …

Food labels showing just how many minutes of exercise are needed to burn off a product’s calories could be a powerful weapon in the fight against obesity, according to U.K. researchers interviewed by CNN.

These physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labels would inform consumers unwrapping a chocolate bar, for instance, that it would take 23 minutes of running, or 46 minutes of walking, to burn off the 230 calories it contains. That’s in addition to the nutrition content information.

If these labels were adopted, they could on average cut calorie consumption by up to 200 calories per person per day, said researchers whose work is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

And that’s a big deal, said Amanda Daley, Ph.D., lead researcher from the University of Loughborough, because a calorie deficit of just 100 calories and increased physical activity could make a dent in the obesity epidemic.

Cutting 300 calories a day led to lower blood pressure and levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol, as well as a 24 percent drop in concentrations of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, for participants in a July study covered by CNN.

Daley would like to see these PACE labels used on food and drink takeout, supermarket labels and restaurant menus.

Photo credit: Natee127, Getty Images