If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us nothing else, it’s that personal health goals are everybody’s business.
What we know to be true about the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 seems to be changing by the minute. From how the virus moves or transmits to which activities appear to put people at higher risk of contracting it, what we know today is different than what we thought back in February or March of 2020. But one aspect of COVID-19’s effect has remained relatively consistent since early on in this pandemic – people with certain underlying health conditions are at a greater risk of experiencing severe illness from COVID-19 than others who don’t have these conditions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no matter their age, those at an increased risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 include people with cancer, chronic kidney disease, some immune system conditions, and sickle cell disease. However, among these expanded risk condition categories are also conditions such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity (defined as a body mass index of 30 or higher). While one could debate that these conditions may be “lifestyle” disorders – that debate, in and of itself, is not helpful. Do you know what is useful? Encouraging people to recognize that they may have a direct impact on whether those conditions keep them at risk.
To help effect change and public health risk reduction when it comes to some conditions that put a person at increased COVID-19 risk, what is required is compassionate education. When it comes to disease, not all “lifestyle factors” like healthy food selection and exercise opportunities have to do with personal “choices.” Plenty of these issues have to do with education and access. However, it remains true that a dedicated focus on proper nutrition and regular exercise is essential for overall wellness. Additionally, and over time, engaging in these lifestyle modifications can reduce heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.
That simple phrase “you are what you eat” is one that most people have heard and at its most basic level, it is accurate. There is no level of attainable exercise for the average individual that can outperform a poor diet. Yes, you read that correctly. Unless you are Michael Phelps while he was training for the four Olympic Games he swam in, you cannot consume 4,000 calories per day and expect to work them off with exercise. So, we health providers often start with nutrition when it comes to modifiable disease and health risk reduction. Thankfully, there is plenty of information online that can help an individual track their food intake down to the molecular level – if they want to. But for the average American, suffice it to say that the majority of your daily calorie intake should be comprised of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins. Avoid added anything – sugars, fats, artificial flavorings, or synthetic ingredients. Keep a food journal and track what you’re consuming and how it’s making you feel. These changes can go a long way toward improving overall health and wellness.
Coupled with a dedicated focus on dietary nutrition, exercise is another element of the health and disease risk-reduction equation that cannot be overlooked. Again, the effort to move your body more, even during a pandemic, doesn’t need to be overly complicated or require an expensive gym membership (which you can’t use in many parts of the country right now anyway). A goal of 30 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity on most days of the week is an attainable place to start. Jog or “power walk” around your living space. Jump rope on the driveway. Go for a bike ride. Concentrate on keeping your heart rate up for 30+ minutes. The added benefit is that cardiovascular exercise is also a proven mood-booster. Who couldn’t use more of THAT right now? As a doctor, however, I do need to add the critical public service announcement that you should clear any new exercise routine with your health care provider before you start – to be safe. After that, get moving!
Saying “these times are tough” is an understatement for most of us. So much of what is going on feels out of our control. And it is. I want to validate those feelings. But, there is also so much each of us can do to set our minds and our bodies right to face the inevitably challenging roads that lay ahead of us in life. Small changes in diet and exercise can add up to big rewards for your health – mental and physical, even during a pandemic.