If you've launched into the new year with a goal of staying fit and healthy, you can add one more item to your to-do list of eating healthy, exercising and getting plenty of rest. Hugging. New research finds that hugs may help protect against stress and infection.

The study, published by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, found that hugs may help to protect people from getting sick. Researchers found that in most cases, more hugs meant greater social support and this protected people from the increased risk of infection that often comes along with stress. 

According to lead researcher Sheldon Cohen, this study stemmed from past research that has shown that people who are stressed and in continuous conflict with their friends and family are more susceptible to colds and other viruses. On the flip side, those with strong social support are better protected from the side effects of stress such as anxiety and depression. So Cohen and his team wanted to see if that strong social support could also protect people from the physical side effects of stress — such as higher susceptibility to colds and infections.

For the study, Cohen and his team recruited 404 healthy adults and asked them to complete a questionnaire that self-reported their level of stress as well as their perceived social support. They followed this up with telephone interviews on 14 consecutive nights to get a better understanding of each participant's interpersonal relationships as well as the number of hugs they gave and received each day. Finally, they intentionally exposed all of the participants to a common cold virus and monitored them in quarantine to assess them for signs of infection.

Researchers found that the participants who reported having strong social support were less likely to become infected with the cold than those who did not. What's more, the study showed that hugs were responsible for about one-third of this protective effect. More hugs = less chance of catching that cold.

Infected patients who also reported having a strong social network and more frequent hugging had less severe symptoms than infected patients without the support and hugs.

"The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy," Cohen noted. "Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection."

Need a better reason to give someone you love a hug?

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