Tag Archives: COVID-19

Fitness and recovery from illness

Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Among other health and fitness benefits, it can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise daily have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active.

Research shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold, flu, and coronavirus, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming for 30–60 minutes.

Improving your fitness through regular exercise is also important for recovering from illness that keeps you from being active for several days or a hospitalization that keeps you in bed for a week, a month, or longer.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Patient walking in hospital


The problem with periods of inactivity, like bed rest or hospitalization, is that there are severe physiological effects that occur within days and get worse over time. You may have noticed this as weakness and fatigue after spending a few days in bed with a cold.

Muscle strength declines with each day of bed rest, and can be 50% lower following as little as three weeks. That reduction in strength could limit a person who was already deconditioned to a point where he or she would have difficulty completing the most basic activities of daily living.

A person who was fit and strong when they went into the hospital would certainly be better off when released. And older adults fare worse than younger individuals. According to one study, the decline in strength seen in older men in just 10 days was equivalent to the change measured after 28 days in men 30 years younger.

It’s not just the muscles that are affected, the bones get weaker, too. In fact, 12 weeks of bed rest can reduce bone density by as much as 50%, exposing patients to a greater risk of fracture. This is due to the reduced stress on the bone from not standing and walking as well as the lack of muscle activity.

Two of the most effective ways to build bone density are putting stress on bones through weight-bearing activity and the action of the muscles pulling on the bones from resistance training. Because bed rest eliminates both of these stresses, bone density declines rapidly.

One unique study from the 1960s had healthy young men complete three weeks of bed rest. They all experienced a rapid decline (over 20%) in their aerobic fitness, but recovered quickly after the experiment ended. These individuals also had their fitness tested again 30 years later. It turns out that the decline in fitness in those young men in three weeks of bed rest was greater than the decline in fitness that occurred over 30 years of aging!

The good news is that most patients are encouraged to move around as much as possible. Some receive inpatient physical therapy or rehab to help lessen the effects of prolonged bed rest. It is important to take advantage of these opportunities if you, or a loved one, are hospitalized. Since the effects of bed rest are seen in people of all ages, everyone can benefit from building a foundation of good fitness through regular exercise.


drparrsays blog footer

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about how to make returning to school healthier for children and families. The focus was on preventing the spread of COVID through vaccinations and mask use. Unfortunately, schools in our community cannot require children and teachers to wear masks and be vaccinated when eligible, so many schools are already seeing outbreaks leading to quarantines, closure of some schools, and some serious illnesses and deaths. Keeping children and families safe from COVID remains the top priority when it comes to making this school year a healthy one.

But there is more we all should do to stay healthy this year.  Here are a few suggestions to improve the health and wellbeing of our children and families.

 Make sure everyone in the family is active every day. Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. Importantly, it can improve your immune system, helping you fight viruses of all kinds. Beyond that, being active can help you perform better at work and school and make it easier to do things you enjoy in your leisure time. Adults should be active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Everything from taking the dog for a walk to a fitness class at the gym counts. For children, the goal is 60 minutes per day through PE class, sports, and play. As a bonus, you can do at least some of the activity together to make activity a family event!

Make healthy eating a family project. There is a lot of confusion about what makes a healthy diet, but there are a few guidelines almost everyone agrees on. First, eat more fruits and vegetables. At a minimum, eat at least 5 servings each day, but try for twice that. Second, limit added sugars and salt. This is tricky since salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are added to most processed foods. Eating too much sugar is known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, so this is among the smartest nutrition moves you can make. Salt, by itself, isn’t necessarily harmful, but less salt almost always means less processed food and more “real” food. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes. Super-sized servings and second (and third) helpings are the primary reason why people gain weight over time.

Plan to eat at least one meal together each day. Most experts agree that family dinners are important for promoting good communication and healthy eating habits. Given that our days are busy with work, school, and other activities, eating dinner together every night is unrealistic for many families. So, start with planning at least one family dinner at home each week. This is also a good opportunity to teach children about food and cooking, so it is even better if you prepare the meal together.

Make getting enough sleep a priority. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect children’s growth, development, and learning.  It can also have an impact on an adult’s productivity at work. The effect of chronic stress on health is well known and we should recognize a lack of sleep as a form of stress. A good goal for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged children need 8–12 hours, with younger kids requiring more. As difficult as it may be, earlier bedtimes can benefit everyone in the family. Limiting screen time (TV, computer, tablet) before bed can help improve sleep, too.

Obviously, these ideas are easier read than done, especially for busy families. But moving more, eating better, and getting more sleep—especially if it is done together—can help your family enjoy a happier and healthier year.

Healthy for the Holidays

Now that Thanksgiving has past, the holiday season is in full swing. At the same time, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has changed virtually every aspect of our lives. If that’s not enough, this is also cold and flu season. In addition, the holiday season itself, with hectic schedules, stress, and lack of sleep, can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to getting sick. The good news is that there is much you can do to keep yourself and the people close to you healthy for the holidays.

For starters, following the familiar recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will help prevent colds and the flu, too. This includes physical distancing and wearing a mask anytime you are close to others, especially indoors. Another basic step in preventing sickness is to wash your hands regularly. Soap and water is best, and there is no additional benefit in using an antibacterial soap. If you can’t wash your hands, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative. Keep in mind that hand sanitizers don’t actually clean your hands and aren’t as effective if your hands are dirty.

Masks and physical distancing are important because SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and common cold viruses are spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks loudly, or sings, so avoiding close contact with people who are sick—or who may be sick—is important. If you are sick, it is essential that you stay away from others as much as you can. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or cough or sneeze onto your sleeve to help keep the germs from spreading through the air or on your hands.

People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe illnesses than people who aren’t regularly active. This is because exercise has the effect of stimulating the immune system, making it better able to respond when you are exposed to cold or flu viruses. Presumably, the same is true for the virus that causes COVID-19, so being active every day is essential for the health of your immune system…and the rest of you!

Good nutrition is also necessary for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies in 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. The best advice is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, drink plenty of water, and avoid highly processed foods, especially those that contain added sugar.

You can get benefits from two more common-sense recommendations: getting adequate sleep and reducing stress. Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to viruses and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.

By taking these steps, you can improve your chances of celebrating the holidays in good health. As a bonus, eating a healthy diet, exercising every day, managing your stress, and getting enough sleep will give you a head start on what are likely to be New Year’s resolutions.

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.

drparrsays blog footer