Since the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced only a few short months ago, the focus has rightly been on preventing disease transmission through a range of measures from staying at home and social distancing, strict hand hygiene/respiratory etiquette as well as rapid identification of cases and isolation of contacts through point in time testing. All this occurring against a backdrop of massive disruption to business and our normal way of life.
As economies and societies reopen in the coming months, we will all have to adapt to a new normal in terms of how we go about our daily lives. This virus hasn’t gone away and a potential vaccine is still some way off.
In that context it is easy to ignore one important fact. And that is that people with underlying chronic health conditions are most susceptible to becoming ill from COVID-19. Not always, but certainly in the vast majority of cases, people being hospitalised with COVID-19 also have heart disease, diabetes, obesity, respiratory issues or other conditions associated with a weakened immune system.
It is never too late to start to take better care of yourself
A recent observational study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which looked at people hospitalised with COVID-19 in New York found that only 6% had no underlying health condition and that 88% of people had at least two.
This is an important point to make, particularly if you are interested in maximising your chances of staying well as time moves on, or at least minimising the potential severity of COVID-19 as an illness should you contract it.
This brings me to the idea of lifestyle as medicine. An idea that has captivated me for years, to rediscover the elements involved in staying healthy – as I like to say “living with vitality”.
Ways to not just add years to your life but life to your years.
A healthy lifestyle can significantly lower your risk of developing certain chronic health conditions and can better manage and even potentially reverse them in some cases.
Jim (not his real name) immediately springs to mind as my ‘poster boy’ for lifestyle as medicine. When I met him for the first time last year, it was only the legal requirements of a drivers licence renewal form that had brought him into me at the age of seventy. Basic tests carried out by me revealed borderline diabetes, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol, underpinned by a sedentary lifestyle, high fat, high salt diet with plenty of beer to wash it all down.
A healthy lifestyle can significantly lower your risk of developing certain chronic health conditions
In his words he drank a ‘slab of beer’ (about twelve cans) most days. Confronted with the consequences of his lifestyle habits for his mortality, he was given two choices – take prescription pills and or make some serious lifestyle changes. To my delight, he chose lifestyle changes.
Even though I had my doubts, he promised he would make real changes. He stopped drinking alcohol, moved to a vegetable-rich diet, and bought a home exercise bike to piggy back exercise with watching the news on TV. Within six months, he had normalised his blood pressure, cholesterol, liver function and reversed his diabetes. All without medication. Hard to believe perhaps, but he looks and feels terrific, and says he hasn’t had as much energy since he was a young man. Jim has now turned his attention to other family members, as his new found zest for life it is making him an advocate for a healthy lifestyle.
The thing is, it is never too late to start to take better care of yourself, to embrace this concept of “lifestyle as medicine”.
Lifestyle medicine focuses on diet and nutrition, exercise and movement, embracing stress and building great relationships.
Food as medicine
Firstly there are thousands of health boosting phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that boost your immune system and support better health.
Furthermore we now know that the food you eat impacts your microbiome (bugs in your gut) which in turn produce the majority of the body’s serotonin – the happiness boosting hormone formerly thought to be produced exclusively in the brain. Which brings new meaning and understanding to the idea of food as medicine and the close connection between body and brain.
Exercise as medicine
There is a wealth of data showing a clear and consistent link between taking moderate amounts of exercise and a reduced risk of certain chronic health conditions. Simply walking for 15 to 30 minutes each day can make a big difference to your immune system.
Sleep as medicine
Less than six hours of regular sleep a night can increase your risks of heart attack, diabetes, depression and even long-term dementia. Furthermore, sleep deprivation keeps you attuned to a chronic negative stress state, marinating in cortisol (negative stress hormone), which of course is a major cause of inflammation, a weakened immune system, as well as playing havoc with your mood, attention span and willpower muscle. Early to bed and early to rise really does make one healthier, wealthier and wiser.
In the current climate, everyone is feeling extra stressed, which is a normal part of the fight or flight response amid this COVID-19 pandemic. Learn to embrace stress by focusing on what you can control, mindfulness techniques including slowing your breathing, meditation, actively monitoring your exposure to news and media, spending time in nature and develop strategies to switch off completely, including comedy.
Simply walking for 15 to 30 minutes each day can make a big difference to your immune system
Accepting the current reality is the starting point to move forward one step, one day at a time. Being able to find meaning, to grow from your experiences is the hallmark of real resilience, a key ingredient in embracing stress.
Gratitude is a powerful antidote to negative stress and toxic destructive emotions such as envy, resentment and bitterness. Just as it is not possible to feel optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, it’s not possible to feel negative, resentful and grateful at the same time. When you are feeling negative and stressed, the best treatment is a liberal dose of gratitude dispensed regularly.
Strong relationships are the leading indicator of your wellbeing. As human beings, we thrive based on the strength and quality of these human connections. The downside of all this social distancing and disconnection is that many people are feeling lonely.
From a health perspective, loneliness can be very harmful to your health, with numerous studies showing that compared to those with a strong sense of interpersonal connection, love and community, people suffering from loneliness are three to 10 times more likely to become ill and die prematurely from almost all causes.
Accepting the current reality is the starting point to move forward one step, one day at a time
Being more connected to others means less “me” and more “we”. Active strategies that enable you to stay connected, even virtually, are the basis for a rich, meaningful and flourishing life.
As we re-emerge into the new reality and learn to adapt to COVID-19, understanding the key role that your lifestyle habits can play, in determining your health, has never been more relevant and important. After all, health is wealth. While there are no guarantees for any of us, embracing a healthier lifestyle as medicine will stack the odds in your favour.
Dr Mark Rowe is a GP, author and life strategist. Follow him on Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram – @drmarkrowe