By Anne Lindsay, University of Nevada, Reno Extension
Staying healthy and living an active lifestyle poses challenges to all Americans. In the U.S., only 19 percent of women and 26 percent of men currently meet the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination, each week.
If the COVID-19 shelter-in-place has brought anything to our lives, it may very well be the opportunity for self-care, stress management and more physical activity. But sadly, it has become a time of stress, weight gain, depression and decreased activity for many. Harnessing the power of physical activity may be one of our most valuable tools to maintain quality of life, improve mental health and manage disease such as COVID-19 infections.
How does physical activity affect my immune system? Immune systems are critical to fighting infection. During an infection, our immune system finds the virus and attacks it. When we are physically active, working muscles produce compounds that help boost our immune system and make us less susceptible to infections. The primary infection of COVID-19 is in the lungs. Although exercise studies have not yet been conducted on COVID-19 patients, we know that physical activity improves immunity, decreases inflammation and decreases viral respiratory infections that are apparent in COVID-19 sufferers. The key, however, is the muscles must be used for this to happen.
How does physical activity affect mental and emotional health? The CDC’s 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans reports that participation in regular physical activity reduces symptoms of anxiety in adults and older adults and reduces the risk of both developing depression and improving many of the symptoms of depression. Physical activity also lowers the risk of developing cognitive impairment, such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, and is associated with more energy and less fatigue during the day and better sleep at night.
How much physical activity does it take to make a difference? One of the more interesting findings is that while doses of exercise (how much is needed) depends on the desired outcome or goals, few doses of physical activity are needed to impact our mental health and immune system. Moderate-intensity physical activity, such as walking, not only has the best impact on the immune system, but also can improve cognition, such as academic performance, mental processing speed, memory and executive function (concentration and attention).
Extreme vigorous exercise, on the other hand, may temporarily reduce immune function and negatively impact our mental health. So while moderation is key, many folks, especially those with mild mental health disorders, may not be getting enough physical activity or walking steps. The average American, for example, takes between 5,000 and 7,000 steps per day (right foot, left foot is two steps). A 2018 study by Paquito Bernard and other researchers found that mental health improved the most (a very steep incline) when taking from one to 5,000 steps per day. Bernard observed a plateau or leveling off from 5,000 to 16,000 steps per day and a decline in mental health scores after 16,000 steps. This means more is not always better. It also means that the greatest improvements in mental health can be seen in individuals who begin walking a little each day, particularly for those who aren’t active.
So how do we start or maintain activity during a time of isolation and social distancing? There is no minimum time to perform an exercise activity. It can be 30 minutes, 20 minutes, five minutes or two minutes. Just move more frequently throughout the day. It all adds up. Walking is one of the safest and most readily accessible physical activities. To increase physical activity during a time of social distancing and shelter-in-place, try one of these:
- Walk your dog around the block daily. A trip around the block can add 1,000 to 2,000 steps to your daily count (2,000 steps is roughly one mile). Use a daily step counter or smartphone to monitor and gradually increase your steps.
- Go for a bike ride. You don’t need an expensive bike. Older bikes without a lot of gears can really work your muscles.
- Run up and down the stairs. Either use a flight of stairs in the house, or step up and down outside on a doorstep.
- Try some simple free weights. You don’t need a dumbbell. Use a vegetable can from your cupboard or fill a water bottle with dirt or sand for bicep curls or lateral arm raises (lifting out to the side).
- Try some squats. Fill a backpack with books, hold it in front of your body with your arms through the straps, and then squat slowly. Keep an upright posture, keep the backpack close to your chest (hug it tightly), and don’t squat any lower than 90 degrees.
- Put on your favorite music playlist and dance, dance, dance.
- Take a free class online. Many health clubs are offering free workouts streaming online during the shelter-in-place. You can also find American College of Sports Medicine Summit workouts free on YouTube.
- Search on the Internet for apps such as the 7-Minute Workout: Daily HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) Exercises at Home recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine, and download them or watch them on YouTube.
- Try something new such as Yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong that includes relaxation, mindfulness and meditation techniques.
- Everything counts. Find opportunities to move.