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Two women doing squats outside.

We’re nine months into the biggest health crisis in generations, and while hope is on the horizon, the need to focus on controllable individual health factors has never been more important.

Public health officials have their hands full managing the COVID-19 pandemic response and protecting the illness management resources that are available. Every day, they call on each of us to do what we can to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Oftentimes, though, they are missing valuable opportunities to highlight the ways we can build healthy resilience. With regard to the topic of pursuing health in the time of the coronavirus, there’s been little more than eerie silence.

That’s dangerous — and possibly wasteful. The testing and tracing programs cost millions each month to operate, and while they’re important, they are limited in how they serve the public. They help identify or rule out sickness, but they are not able to improve health.

COVID-19, the disease that manifests in many people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is disproportionately affecting individuals of advanced age and/or those with underlying, lifestyle-related chronic health conditions.

To be clear, anyone can get sick and die from this virus, and we all need to take certain precautions.

However, it’s clear that a large portion of the population has modifiable health risk factors that ought to be addressed to minimize further loss from this pandemic. We have an opportunity to emerge from this pandemic healthier as a society.

Even Hippocrates knew this to be true 2,500 years ago:

“It is far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has.” – Hippocrates

Think Big. Start Small. Move Fast.

In my experience, many of us are less than a year away from being in the best health of our entire life. That is, if we focus on the pursuit of wellness — consistently, in many small ways, today, tomorrow, and the days after that.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that time can fly by and feel like it’s standing still all at the same time.

I’m just an optimistic dietitian — I’m not a public health expert or pandemic guru. But I do think there are a few creative ways we could all enhance our health significantly while temporarily adjusting to the regulations and restrictions that are currently in place.

Around the time that the second round of temporary closures of health clubs and fitness centers was announced in Minnesota (where I’m based), I wrote the following post on my Facebook page, which got a lot of positive support and almost zero pushback.

Paul Kriegler's Facebook post.

It wasn’t controversial or divisive, but rather a simple plea to Governor Tim Walz to engage the health and fitness industry in the efforts to ensure Minnesotans emerge from the pandemic in a better state of health than we entered it. Minnesota is home to three giant health-club companies — Life Time, Snap Fitness, and Anytime Fitness — and we each have resources and smart, passionate employees who can help.

That’s what spawned this op-ed. Yes, we’re all tired of wearing masks and not being able to hug our friends and family. To some degree, we’ve all felt afraid due to the uncertainty the virus has brought into our daily lives. But even though we’re overwhelmed by all the stats around the human and financial costs of the pandemic, I do think we need to share more data and stories about the potential long-term damage to our collective health if we don’t prioritize it.

And that’s the reason we need to challenge our leaders to consider strategies that encourage not just safety, but health, too. We need to hear about more than stats and stories of the destruction. We need to be encouraged by our leaders to (safely) pursue health.

Here are just a few ideas and resources to consider.

Mask up — and move often.

I don’t love wearing a mask, but I do it when necessary. As far as I can tell, mask wearing has almost nothing to do with whether or not one can be physically active.

Physical activity supports healthy immune function. Even if you’re sick, in many cases, you may still be able to be active.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated the guidelines for physical activity to maintain health and now suggests (summarized) that most adults:

  • Do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity each week — even more for additional health and fitness benefits.
  • Do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days per week.
  • Limit the amount of time being sedentary.

So, let’s all find ways to get enough physical activity daily — mask or no mask, depending on where or how you’re exercising.

Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk your dog more. Ride a bike. Park farther away from your destination. Garden or do housework. Do yardwork for a neighbor who can’t. Just move.

Life Time has worked tirelessly to provide access to digital versions of in-club exercise experiences to keep our communities healthy and moving. Most of it’s free to use, or costs a nominal amount for even more access. Here are just a few options:

For Life Time members, our Personal Trainers and Nutrition Coaches can conduct sessions via video conference, so if you need help but aren’t able or willing to physically come to the club, we’ve got you covered. If you’re interested, you can get connected here.

Small-Group Training Coaches are also ready to push your limits, even if you’re staying home for now. Virtual classes are streaming from more than 100 clubs to your favorite device. If you love camaraderie and coaching, you can get connected here.

Sedentary living may prove to be as dangerous as any virus nature throws at us, so wherever you’re riding out the pandemic, commit to establishing consistent activity habits.

Stay six feet apart — and get in at least six servings of produce each day.

As the pandemic was emerging, I put together this “Ultimate Guide to Supporting Your Immune System.” As I tried to distill the latest science into the 8,000-word guide I was struck (again) with the realization that poor nutritional lifestyles have put many people at a terrible disadvantage from an immune perspective.

Calories are abundant in our food landscape. Nutrients are not.

Nutrients are crucial for maintaining healthy physical and chemical barriers that resist infectious pathogens. They’re also critical for a healthy adaptive immune response. Most people have inadequate intakes of several nutrients, such as omega-3’s, magnesium, and others covered in this article.

Calorie for calorie, vegetables and fruits (and organ meats) are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, as long as they’re consumed as close as possible to their natural form (minimally processed).

While we focus on maintaining physical distancing, we can also take the time to reflect on our dietary habits. A good place to start is with two questions, which I like to ask my clients:

  1. When is the last time you ate a pile of produce the size of your head in one day?
  2. In the past seven days, how many days did you eat at least six servings of produce, not counting juice? (A serving is approximately 1/2 cup of cooked or canned vegetables or fruit, or 1 cup raw.)

Chances are you or someone you know is a little behind on produce intake. Hell, I am too many days. That’s why I take foundational, daily supplements and strive to eat a wholesome diet.

If you’re struggling to improve your nutritional lifestyle, here are a few of my favorite resources to share:

Of course, if you want more individualized help from a Nutrition Coach, Life Time members can get connected here.

Do your part — and optimize your vitamin-D levels

Vitamin D is vitally important for a host of health reasons, including building immune resilience and protecting against respiratory infections.

It’s a unique nutrient in that we have the ability to synthesize it when we’re exposed to sufficient sunlight or UV radiation. As little as 20 minutes of midday sun exposure of the face, hands, and arms without protective sunscreen may be enough to maintain healthy vitamin-D levels, depending on the time of year, latitude, and skin pigmentation characteristics.

Those at northern latitudes (north of Atlanta, Ga., for example) or those with darker skin pigmentation may require more UVB exposure to maintain adequate vitamin-D levels.

Dietary vitamin D can be consumed from fatty fish, beef liver, egg yolks, or a number of fortified foods, although it is almost impossible to achieve optimal vitamin-D levels solely through diet.

More than half the world’s population is deficient in vitamin D, and up to 80 percent of the United States population may have levels below optimal.

One randomized trial that investigated the effect of supplementing with 5,000 IU (125 mcg) of vitamin D3 per day for 14 weeks in athletes showed those getting vitamin D3 increased production and secretion of antimicrobial peptides and proteins, which helps reduce susceptibility to upper respiratory infections.

A 2017 meta-analysis of vitamin-D supplementation for prevention of acute respiratory infections concluded vitamin-D supplementation is not only safe, but it also protects against acute respiratory tract infections. Subjects who were most deficient and those taking daily vitamin-D doses several times higher than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) seemed to benefit the most.

A recent analysis concluded that as many as nine out of 10 COVID-19 deaths may have been related to vitamin D insufficiency. Other large systematic reviews have shown that low vitamin-D status is associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and that supplementation is a viable strategy to improve population health.

The evidence is so heavily weighted on the benefit side of the risk-benefit ratio that it’s mind-boggling to that health experts aren’t initiating a campaign to assess and correct vitamin-D status in the population. (This is, however, happening in the United Kingdom, where the National Health Service has launched a campaign to get everyone on vitamin-D supplements, regardless of testing. It’s also providing a program to provide high-risk individuals with free supplements.)

Never before have we seen so many individuals come forward for health screenings (in this case for COVID-19 testing), so it would be relatively simple to gather valuable and actionable vitamin-D data. Testing for vitamin D costs a fraction of what COVID-19 tests cost, and quality supplements can be inexpensive as well.

There may not be a better safe, more effective, and economically viable strategy to employ in the fight against COVID-19 than measuring population-level vitamin D and correcting any deficiencies or insufficiencies.

Wash your hands — and work toward a healthier waist circumference

In addition to age, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease appear to be the underlying health factors that pose the greatest risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19. Before COVID-19 emerged, cardiovascular disease was — and very well may still be — the leading cause of death in the United States.

One major characteristic often associated with these conditions is waist circumference (WC), specifically for those with a WC greater than 35 inches (women) or 40 inches (men).

In fact, compared to Body Mass Index (BMI), scale weight, and body composition (body-fat percentage), WC is the strongest predictor of cardio-metabolic disease.

Measuring WC is a unique way of easily estimating total adiposity, as well as adipose distribution, both of which offer valuable clinical insights (including how much body fat one stores and where they store it).

You can easily measure it at home with a piece of string or flexible tape measure — just find the midpoint between your bottom rib and top of your hip bone (iliac crest) on one side of your body and wrap the tape measure around your navel.

How do you compare to the 35- or 40-inch benchmarks? Want to change it? Let’s go!

Just do something.

Reduce your risk of severe COVID-19 illness or cardiovascular disease as you improve your health. What do you have to lose?

Hindsight is 20/20

For most of 2020, we’ve been hyper-focused on how to “stay safe.” As a result, many of us also lost focus on achieving or maintaining good health. Yet nothing will protect us from this or any serious illness or health threat as well as good health.

When the dust settles and the year 2020 is behind us, I believe that will be clearer than anything.

Good health is the best prevention, treatment, and insurance against infectious disease. It prevails even when pandemic management struggles.

Creating good health is also simple — not always easy, but simple. Hippocrates knew that long ago, too:

“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” – Hippocrates

Let’s do a favor for our leaders, front-line healthcare workers, and everyone else struggling through this pandemic and take responsibility for the controllable attributes of our own health. We can’t afford not to — and we have a lot to gain when we do.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

paul-kriegler-registered-dietician-life-time
Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT

Paul Kriegler, RD, LD, CPT, CISSN, is the program developer for nutritional products at Life Time. He’s also a USA track and field coach.

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