All week, Dr. MICHAEL MOSLEY in exclusive excerpts from his new book Covid-19 explains how to stay one step ahead of the virus while making locking easier.
Today, in the last of his indispensable extracts, he explains why exercise is so important.
Not only will it help you lose weight, but a regular fitness routine will boost your immunity to keep you fit.
Even if you’re not a high-risk candidate, regular exercise can increase your chances of minimal symptoms and a short illness if you get the virus, writes Dr. Michael Mosley
As the picture of how Covid-19 affects the human body becomes clearer, we find that one of the best ways to prepare to fight the virus is to be as healthy as possible at first.
That means following a nutritious diet, losing excess weight, sleeping well and staying fit.
Many people have taken advantage of the extra time on exit (and let’s face it, a desperate urge to get out of the house) to develop great new training habits. Others may feel that the closure of gyms and sports centers and the interruption of most team sports have severely limited their activity level.
Maybe you have always been allergic to sports and are still fighting to include exercise in your life?
Whatever your situation, it’s important to know that daily exercise is vital for strengthening your immune system and today, in the last part of this week’s series based on my new book Covid-19, I’ll explain why you should become more active.
The good news is that you don’t have to start training for a marathon or invest in head-to-toe lycra to reap the benefits.
You can start by simply aiming for more standing. Sitting continuously is almost as bad for your health – and your immune system – as smoking.
The first and easiest thing to do is to stand every 30 minutes. So set up your phone or receive an app with an alarm to remind you to move – every half hour. If you watch a lot of TV, take a walk during the commercial breaks.
Or keep the control next to the TV, so you have to get up to change channels. Make a point when you make the call (you’ll also burn more calories and sound more assertive).
As the picture of how Covid-19 affects the human body becomes clearer, we find that one of the best ways to prepare to fight the virus is to be as healthy as possible at first [File photo]
The next? Go for a walk. Walking is an inexpensive, safe way to exercise, and researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine in the U.S. found that a brisk 20 minutes three times a week is enough to have a positive effect, reducing the level of a natural chemical in the body that causes inflammation. It is also sufficient to increase the level of a powerful disease-fighting antioxidant known as extracellular superoxide dismutase.
The best time to do it, if you can fit it into your life, is before breakfast in the morning. That way, you not only manage to get your metabolism going, but you are also exposed to early morning light, which helps reset your internal clock. This, in turn, will help you sleep better at night.
Not only is exercise so good for you, it makes you feel good when you’ve done it – and anyone can start somewhere
If you’re going somewhere – work or school maybe – that’s less than a mile away, why not walk there? And once you’ve mastered the running bit, try adding running or cycling to your regimen.
Using muscles during exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect and helps immune cells, called neutrophils, get to an infection site more quickly.
Exercise also encourages the body to create immune cells called macrophages – “guard” cells that patrol the body for signs of attack – so that we can better control infection. By stimulating circulation, the immune cells can also travel through the body more effectively.
Among those at a higher risk for coronavirus are people who are obese or have high blood pressure, and making time for more physical activity will certainly help reduce the risk.
Exercise is great for all aspects of your health and the key in striving to maintain a sensible weight, and it is very important now to consider that these measurable chemical changes increase your risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS ) can help reduce – a leading cause of death in patients with Covid-19.
Even if you’re not a high-risk candidate, regular exercise can increase your chances of minimal symptoms and a short illness if you get the virus.
A new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who exercise five or more days a week spend 46 percent fewer days with a cold or respiratory virus compared to those who exercise only once a week or not at all.
Any exercise that increases your heart rate seems to be able to turn back the clock of the immune system.
It is helpful to know in these worrying times that exercise is also a great stress buster, and it can improve flat mood by boosting the production of your brain’s feel-good neuro transmitters and endorphins.
But what you may not realize is how important it is to get a decent mix of different types of exercises.
I hate the gym, so I’ve found ways to get myself to do what I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy, sleep better, and also keep my brain in good shape.
I go for a 30 minute walk or run most mornings in nearby fields. This is partly to make my heart beat faster, but also so that I can get plenty of morning light and get my immune system in shape.
Besides running, walking and cycling, I also do strength exercises, such as push-ups and squats.
I make sure to do this EVERY DAY as I have seen so much research on the health benefits it brings.
I’m afraid that my age (63) and gender put me at increased risk of covid complications and I want to give my immune system the best possible chance to launch a good attack against viruses like this.
Not only is exercise so good for you, it makes you feel good when you’ve done it – and anyone can start somewhere.
Get out on two wheels
Consider buying a bicycle and cycling whenever you can. It’s a great exercise and useful because it’s vital to make some form of physical activity a non-negotiable part of your day every day of the year.
In addition to caring for your heart and lungs, you also need to take care of your muscles, which begin to weaken after age 30.
Muscles look good on the beach, but more importantly, they burn calories even when you sleep and improve your insulin sensitivity.
This, in turn, reduces your risk of the complications that could result from a Covid-19 attack.
In addition to caring for your heart and lungs, you should also take care of your muscles, which begin to weaken after age 30 [File photo]
Short exercises are best
Studies show that just a few brief bursts of intense physical activity can be powerfully effective. In fact, just a few minutes of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) a week is enough to boost your body.
HIIT is not for everyone, however. If you are taking any medications, are injured, or are concerned about your heart, consult your physician before starting an exercise regimen.
Studies show that just a few brief bursts of intense physical activity can be powerfully effective
There’s always the risk of pulling something (I tore my Achilles tendon while running earlier this year), and studies in mice suggest that a sudden increase in exercise intensity and volume may have a transient negative effect on the immune system.
However, if you’re feeling up to it, HIIT offers most of the major benefits of exercise in a short, sharp burst, which is mercifully over quickly.
I first came across HIIT a few years ago while making a BBC television documentary called The Truth About Exercise.
I was told that cycling a few minutes a week would greatly improve my aerobic fitness and blood sugar (which, as we know, is very important if you want to avoid the extreme symptoms of Covid-19). The regimen I was asked to do consisted of 20 seconds of intensive exercise on an exercise bike three times a week.
In just six weeks, my insulin sensitivity improved by more than 20 percent.
Since then, studies have shown that just two minutes of HIIT each week will give your body a significant boost – the equivalent of running 45 minutes three times a week.
While it’s easiest to complete a HIIT session on an exercise bike, consider swapping bikes to run up the stairs for 20 seconds or doing short, flat sprints while jogging.
Start with a few minutes of gentle cycling or jogging to warm up before starting HIIT.
When you’re ready, accelerate and work your body ten or twenty seconds as hard as you can before slowing down again.
Repeat the sprint after walking / pedaling / walking for a few minutes to recover.
Recovery time is important.
6 exercises to build strength
The best way to maintain your muscles is with strength training or resistance exercises.
I have a simple regime that I run most mornings. I get out of bed, turn on the radio, and do a series of pushups, squats, abdominal crunches, the bicep curl, and plank – in about that order.
There are many other variants to try, but these are the basics. Start with ten pushups, ten crunches, ten squats, and a 20-second plank stop, three times in the first week, building up to two sets of ten reps (and a longer plank hold) by week two and three sets per week four.
The best way to maintain your muscles is with strength training or resistance exercises
Imprints: Lthat is, facing down with the palms under your shoulders and the balls of your feet touching the ground. Keep your body straight. Lower your body until your elbows are at right angles to the floor, then push up. If you find this too difficult, do it with your knees on the floor.
Squats: Stand with your feet apart. Bend from the hips and keep the weight on your heels. Make sure your back is straight. Continue to bend until your legs are perpendicular to the floor – imagine preparing to sit on a chair. Push up again without bending your back. Squats work the largest muscles in your body. Make this more difficult by using weights.
Shelf: Lie face down on the floor, then stand on your forearms and toes so that your body forms a straight line from head to toe. Make sure your middle section doesn’t go up or down. Squeeze your buttocks and hold the position as long as possible. Remember that it should never cause lower back pain.
Crunches: Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor and your hands at the sides of your head. Curl your upper body without lifting your lower back off the floor. Make sure your chin is tucked to your chest. When your shoulders and upper back are lifted off the floor, curl back down.
Lunges: Stand with your back straight and your feet shoulder-width apart. Step forward with one leg, bend both knees at a right angle and keep your upper body straight. Pull back to the starting position and repeat, putting the other leg forward.
Triceps dips: Stand with your back to a sofa or chair. Place your palms on the chair behind you, bend your knees to right angles, hips straight. Bend your elbows at a right angle to lower your body so that your buttocks drop halfway down the floor. Push yourself back up with only your arms.
Learn to calm your mind to help your body heal
These are undoubtedly stressful times, and it probably won’t help when I say that chronic stress has a direct and damaging effect on the immune system.
The problem is that stress can raise the level of the hormone cortisol, which worsens chronic inflammation throughout the body. It also reduces the number of white blood cells (lymphocytes) that your immune system uses to fight infections.
Fortunately, all the lifestyle changes I’ve outlined this week, from losing weight, following a Mediterranean diet and boosting your population of ‘good’ gut bacteria to getting a good night’s sleep, will help reduce your stress levels.
But there are other great research-backed steps you can take to reduce stress and thereby release a bit of pressure from your compromised immune system.
Don’t dwell on the thoughts, just notice them and let them drift away, like leaves on a stream. The art of mindfulness is to keep doing this, but for longer periods. If you can do ten minutes every day, you will do well. Twenty minutes is even better!
Routine is very important for mental health. If you have not structured your day, it is very easy to get carried away by spending too much time listening to the news or following the latest developments online, which is not healthy.
Every day, my wife Clare and I follow a routine of getting up at around 7 a.m., similar to our pre-lockdown routine. We go through a series of strength-building exercises, such as push-ups and squats, and then relax in a regular daily mindfulness meditation.
Being at home and worrying about work or health is very stressful. This is why we follow a Mediterranean diet (which has been shown in numerous studies to reduce anxiety and depression) and why we also spend about 15 minutes a day practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness isn’t weird or spooky, it’s just a matter of building consciousness and reaching a state of calm. This is what I do: Sit up straight, close your eyes and focus on your breathing, focus on raising your chest and filling your lungs as your breath moves in and out of your body.
No need to slow it down or speed it up. If you find that your mind has gone astray, whatever it may be, return to focus on your breathing.
Don’t dwell on the thoughts, just notice them and let them drift away, like leaves on a stream.
The art of mindfulness is to keep doing this, but for longer periods. If you can do ten minutes every day, you will do well. Twenty minutes is even better!
If I’m particularly stressed or too concerned about shutting down my brain at night, I’ll breathe a little deeply, too.
Breathing exercises have been shown to reduce stress by activating the parasympathetic system (the rest and digestive system of your autonomic nervous system), slowing your heart and lowering your blood pressure.
These are my favorite exercises
1. Easy deep breathing: start by breathing in slowly and deeply through the nose – so that the air really fills your lungs.
Put a hand on your stomach – you should feel it blowing up. Hold for two seconds and exhale slowly through your mouth.
The first few times you do this it feels unnatural so you should exercise during the day. You will find that if you do this, your heart rate will slow down and you will feel more relaxed.
2. ‘4-2-4 breathing’: take a deep breath through your nose while mentally counting to four. Hold your breath for a count of two, then exhale through your mouth to a count of four.
3. Alternative nostril breathing: exhale through your mouth, then use your right thumb to close the right nostril. Breathe deeply through your left nostril to a count of four. Really fill your belly. Now switch sides. Block your left nostril with the left thumb and exhale completely to a count of four. Repeat ten times.
If your stress levels are compounded by an endless stream of irrational thoughts about whether you or someone you love could get the virus and end up in the hospital, the anxiety can be very damaging.
It’s good to be aware of risks and try to ensure the safety of your family, but worrying only makes things worse.
This is a classic nighttime activity and can seriously disrupt your sleep.
Sometimes telling yourself that your catastrophic predictions aren’t real. If they return again and again, you can try to name your negative thoughts, such as “Donald.” So if you have them, you can say, “That just sounds off again.” This sounds crazy, but science shows it works.
Another way to approach your catastrophic or negative thoughts is to imagine what a sympathetic friend would say if you shared them. What would they say? How would they help you ground?
It’s also important to realize that your filters are empty at night and that you are more sensitive to inner demons, so any thoughts you might have at night will inevitably be less rooted in reality than the negative thoughts you during the day.
If you sleep well, it really looks better in the morning.
Long way back to normality
One thing I find emotionally difficult to accept is that we are only at the beginning of this crisis.
The death rate is falling in many countries, but rising in others.
New Zealand and Iceland have managed to control the virus by shutting itself off, but it’s hard to see others doing it in the long run.
Passengers are seen at a social distance and wear face masks in a shuttle bus to the airport in Rome, Italy. One thing I find emotionally difficult to accept is that we are only at the beginning of this crisis
As long as there is no vaccine, we need to find ways to live with the virus. One way for countries that can afford it is to follow the example of South Korea.
That means taking a social distance, wearing masks in public, testing and tracking. The latter two mean that people who become infected can be detected, isolated and treated before they spread it to others.
Once there are reliable antibody tests, we can also see immunity passports. These would be digital documents, probably stored on your phone, that prove that you are infected and therefore immune.
People with these passports would be able to return to work and have a relatively normal daily life. But the documents are said to be susceptible to fraud, and some who test negative may be tempted to get infected to get one.
In the future, we may need to use a ‘lift, suppress, lift’ approach to social distance.
More children are going back to school, universities are opening up again and restrictions on social gatherings are being relaxed.
But as soon as there are signs that the virus is spreading again, it starts to brake.
Adapted by Louise Atkinson from Covid-19, What You Need To Know About The Coronavirus And The Race For The Vaccine by Dr. Michael Mosley, published by Short Books for £ 6.99
Uncertainty will do great harm to the economy.
I would like to see this virus burn up like others have, but I think that’s unlikely. Covid-19 is all too well established. Unless we get a vaccine, like the flu virus, Covid-19 will likely be with us for a very long time.
It can turn into a less dangerous form, causing fewer people to die, as happened with the 2009 Mexican flu. But I wouldn’t be sure.
So hugs, handshakes and large social gatherings are unlikely to be on the menu for a long time. People are already afraid to go outside and socialize.
What happens to the elderly, such as my mother? How can we protect them without keeping them physically isolated?
It is a long way back to normality.
But if you’re an optimist like me, you have to hope that the pandemic brings out the best in us and urges the world to deal with new crises more effectively.
Adjusted through Louise Atkinson from Covid-19, What you Must know About the Coronavirus And the race For the vaccine by Dr. Michael Mosley, published by Short books for £ 6.99.
© 2020 Michael Mosley