Healthy stress management (because we need it right now)

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Working or learning from home? Don’t forget about recess!

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, many adults and children are settling into a new routine of working and learning from home. Children and their new teachers—often parents and grandparents—are finding ways to complete schoolwork at home, often with limited guidance or resources. For people working from home, that means finding ways to be productive, often while caring for and homeschooling children.

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Most teachers and schools have provided assignments that cover the major subjects kids would do in school: English, math science, and social studies. It is critical to continue learning these subjects even when schools are closed. But a school day also includes other subjects like art, music, and PE. Unfortunately, projects for these subjects are probably not included in the distance learning resources provided by schools.

Far from a distraction, opportunities to be creative and physically active in school support and enhance learning and should be included at home, too. Research shows that physical activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades).

Regular physical activity is also essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of obesity and related health problems in children, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Physical activity is also a great way to reduce feelings of stress, something that is especially relevant now.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. All of these opportunities for activity can be part of a school day at home. Even if you aren’t a PE teacher, giving kids time to be active and play is critical to their health, learning, and wellbeing, so make sure you include recess in your home school plan.

Almost any activity counts, even if it is not structured. Active play, practicing sports, walking the dog, and running or bicycling around the neighborhood are excellent options. Given social distancing recommendations, it’s best to do these activities individually or as a family and to avoid public places like playgrounds. You can find ideas for PE activities at home online, many of which would make a good workout for adults, too. Even taking short breaks to get up and move throughout the day can have health and cognitive benefits

This isn’t just for kids—adults need recess, too! Prolonged sitting in your home office has been linked to negative health effects that are similar to those of not exercising. Even among people who do exercise, those who spend more time sitting tend to have more health problems than those who are more active during the day.

Taking short breaks at work also improves attention and productivity. In fact, many time management and productivity techniques include periods of focused work separated by breaks. Since most work is done sitting at a desk or in front of a computer, these breaks can be used to get up and move. Together with dedicating time every day for exercise, these activity breaks can contribute to meeting physical activity recommendations and can add up to serious health benefits.


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Working (out) from home.

Right now, you are probably focused on staying healthy by washing your hands and keeping your distance from other people, especially if they are sick. But there is more you can and should do, including being active every day. Regular exercise, along with good nutrition and getting enough sleep, can strengthen your immune system, reduce stress, and help you stay fit. 

Now that most people are spending more time at home and almost all gyms and other fitness facilities are closed, your exercise routine has likely been disrupted. The good news is, you can still get a good workout at home.

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Why you need to exercise, especially now.

Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Among other benefits, regular physical activity can have a positive effect on your immune system. Research shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells, making the immune system response to viruses more robust. 

This is particularly relevant now that we are experiencing an outbreak of a novel coronavirus. This virus can lead to a disease called COVID-19 which causes respiratory symptoms similar to the seasonal flu, but can progress to more serious conditions like pneumonia.

As the virus spreads, more and more infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are counted each day in the United States and around the world. At this point, it is reasonable to expect that COVID-19 is spreading in our community.

This means that we should all take steps to protect ourself from infection and do what we can to reduce the risk of serious illness. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Smart advice from the CDC includes avoiding close contact with people who are sick since COVID-19 can be spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The CDC also advises avoiding larger crowds where the virus may spread more easily. In fact, many events and gatherings including concerts, sports, meetings, and church services have been cancelled and some schools are closed. 

When you are out in public, try to keep a three to six foot distance between yourself and others and replace handshakes and hugs with a friendly elbow bump. 

The virus can also spread through surfaces, so you can also protect yourself by by washing your hands frequently with soap and water and not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. If soap and water is not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative. The CDC does not recommend wearing a mask or gloves to protect yourself unless you are sick or are caring for someone who is sick.

Good nutrition is important for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. In fact, the majority of nutritional supplements have not undergone appropriate testing and for those supplements that have been tested, the results are not consistent with the claims.

It especially important to note that there are no foods, nutrients, or supplements that are effective against specific viruses, including the COVID-19 virus. Any claims that a certain supplement can prevent COVID-19 are false!

Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. High levels of stress can also increase susceptibility to viruses. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system. Getting enough sleep should always be a priority, especially now. 

A couple of final notes about exercise and the immune system. While moderate exercise can boost the immune system, very vigorous and prolonged exercise can have the opposite effect. You may wondering if it is safe to go to the gym to work out. COVID-19 isn’t spread through sweat, but, like any virus, is can be spread through the air and surfaces by infected people, especially in a crowded gym or exercise class.

Washing your hands, not touching your face, and making sure to wipe down equipment, including weights, is important.

That said, this would be a good time to exercise outdoors where the risk of viral spread is lower and you can get the benefits of exercising in the fresh air and sunshine!


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Yes, you can still go to the gym! Here’s how to do it safely.

The spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 is a very real and urgent health concern right now. But focusing on hand washing and social distancing doesn’t mean you should neglect other aspects of your health, including exercise.

Yes, you can still go to the gym! Here’s how to do it and reduce your risk of spreading coronavirus (and other viruses and bacteria, too).

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water before and after your workout. If that’s not an option, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) is okay, too.

  2. Use the provided disinfectant spray to wipe down equipment, including weights, before and after you use it. Many people are good about wiping sweat from benches, seats, and other equipment but skip cleaning barbells, dumbbells, and other hand-held gear. Make sure you spray and wipe thoroughly.

  3. As much as you can, keep your distance from other people. This may mean skipping group exercise classes for now. You can always find alternatives—a session on a bike on the fitness floor instead of a spin class, for example.

  4. If your gym closes or if you decide not to go, you can still get a good workout at home. If you need ideas, try one of the many mobile apps that will guide you through a workouts, some using nothing more than your body weight.
  5. This would be a great time to go for a walk, run, or bike ride outdoors. Even if you go with a friend, the risk of virus spread is lower outdoors, especially if you keep a few feet between you. Plus there are physical and psychological benefits to outdoor exercise beyond the activity itself.
  6. If you are sick, please stay home! You can still do light activity with mild symptoms, but it’s best to take the day off if you have a cough or fever.

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Strike a recovery pose

If you spend time in the gym or watch sports, you probably see athletes standing with their hands on their head or bent over with their hands on their knees during a break from a workout or game. Other than being an indicator of fatigue, these “poses” may actually speed recovery, allowing athletes to get back to action faster. Quick recovery is important for performance in athletes, especially if they have back-to-back events. It’s also important for the rest of us when we do workouts that have multiple sets, separated by brief recovery periods. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Take the sweet challenge!

Cutting back on sugar intake is a common goal to improve heath and promote weight loss. It is also a popular New Year’s resolution and many people have attempted to completely eliminate sugar on a 30-day (or longer) sugar challenge. There is good reason to do this: eating too much sugar is unhealthy! Excessive sugar intake causes hormonal changes and inflammation that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is especially true when combined with a lack of physical activity. And your dentist wants you to know that sugar is also associated with dental caries.

If you are trying to lose weight or if your goal is to eat healthier in general, reducing or eliminating added sugar will help more than any other single dietary change. Many people do this by switching from sugary sodas, juices, and other beverages to flavored, artificially sweetened drinks. This is good because it lowers sugar intake, but it may not be the best approach.  This is the topic of my Health and Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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There is some concern over potential health risks of excessive artificial sweetener consumption, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, mood, and behavior. It is important to know that research does not support a strong association between typical artificial sweetener consumption and these health problems. That said, if your goal is to eat less processed food, avoiding artificial sweeteners is an excellent idea.

A more realistic concern may be the effect that replacing sugar with an equally sweet alternative has on your eating behavior and food preferences. Sweetness is one of the most important tastes we respond to, driving our food choices and the amount we eat. It is easy to become accustomed to a certain level of sweetness in food and beverages that make unsweetened “natural” options less palatable.

For example, in an effort to move away from soda and other beverages, many people drink flavored, artificially sweetened water. These drinks taste good and have no calories, so they seem like a smart choice. And they are, if you only consider calories. But these drinks create an expectation that water should be flavored and sweet, so they move people away from a goal of making water the primary source of hydration. I know several adults who simply won’t drink plain water!

This is especially true for children when it comes to fruit. Kids may develop an expectation that strawberries should taste like strawberry-flavored fruit snacks or that orange juice should taste as sweet as a sugar-free fruit drink. Children who learn that fruit should taste sweeter than it really is may not like real fruit when they try it. To a kid accustomed to drinking orange-flavored drinks, even sugar-free, an actual orange may taste sour.

So, if you are already cutting back on sugar intake, keep it up. If you haven’t tried to reduce your sugar consumption, you should. The health benefits are worth it! Keep in mind that you should also make an effort to cut back on sweets, too.  

Take the sweet challenge by reducing your consumption of added sugars and sweeteners. One easy way to do this is to replace sweetened drinks with plain water, tea, and coffee.  You should also avoid processed foods and eat more “real” food. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, meat, beans, and dairy are known to have health benefits and have no added sweetness. When you do eat packaged foods, pay attention to food labels and look for foods and beverages that have no added sugar or sweeteners.


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