Easy ways to fight pandemic-era inactivity

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Get up and move at least once an hour

For many people, the effects of the pandemic include less physical activity.

But long periods of sitting are bad for health. They’re associated with increased risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of health conditions that include abdominal obesity, unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar). Too much sitting is even linked to an early death. The good news: staying active throughout the day helps reverse the effects of too much sitting.

DOCTOR’S ORDERS
“Take a two-, five-, or 10-minute break at least once per hour,” advises Dr. Beth Frates, director of wellness programming for the Stroke Research and Recovery Institute at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

What should you do during an activity break? Dr. Frates says it could be anything that gets you out of your chair. One thing it shouldn’t be: a chore you dislike. “These breaks should be joyful, should generate the feeling that this is a good thing, so you’ll be motivated to do it again,” Dr. Frates explains.

You can achieve that motivation by choosing activities that interest you. Even better, do something that also benefits your mental or emotional well-being, such as being mindful during physical activity or spending time outside if you can.

Other tips that will help:

  • Set timers or apps that remind you when to take a break and how long to stay active.
  • Keep a log of your breaks and what you did for each one.
  • If possible, get a buddy to share your break, which will help hold you accountable.
  • Gradually push yourself to move a little more in each break.

EASY TWO-MINUTE BREAKS
A two-minute break is all it takes to interrupt the unhealthy physiological processes percolating while you sit. Dr. Frates suggests this easy one: “Get out of your chair, stand up, and breathe deeply. Release tension and focus on happy thoughts.”

As you get used to taking breaks every hour, make them progressively more demanding, like the following examples:

  • Hop to it for hydration. Walk briskly or skip to the kitchen to fix yourself a cool glass of water with fresh fruit.
  • Dance. Play a bouncy song that makes you happy, step side-to-side, and put your arms in the air.
  • Try hula-hooping. “It takes practice, but it’s fun, you’ll laugh, and you’ll break a sweat the longer you can do it,” Dr. Frates says.
  • Work a muscle group. Start at the top and work your way down. For example, at 10 a.m., work your shoulders by squeezing your shoulder blades together, holding a few seconds, and releasing; repeat to fill your two-minute break. At 11 a.m., work your abdominal and leg muscles with sit-to-stands (standing up and sitting down repeatedly); at noon, work your arm and chest muscles by doing wall push-ups. Keep going with leg lifts at 1 p.m., wall squats at 2 p.m., and calf raises (rocking up on your toes for a moment) at 3 p.m.
  • Climb stairs. Go up and down the stairs at least twice — slowly the first time and faster the next. Can you squeeze in a third trip?

FIVE-MINUTE BREAKS
Five minutes gives you time to accomplish more involved activities.

  • Go on a mini hike. “Walk all the way around the outside of your house,” Dr. Frates suggests. “Note how the leaves have changed and how the air smells. Breathing in nature enhances a sense of well-being.”
  • Stretch. “Your back and neck muscles may be tight from sitting. Stretch to ease tension and release ‘feel-good chemicals,’ and to improve your posture,” Dr. Frates says. To stretch your back: Lie on the floor facing the ceiling, pull both knees to your chest, and hold the position for 60 seconds. Don’t rush yourself; feel the stretch, then rest and repeat. To stretch your neck: Sit up straight, face forward, and bend your head slowly to the side. Hold for a few seconds and repeat on the other side.
  • Complete household tasks. Don’t think of this as work; it’s an activity break, so do as many tasks as you can in five minutes — gather laundry and put it in the washer, vacuum or dust a room, take out the trash. “They’re simple things, but if you do them quickly and mindfully, they’ll get you moving, reset your focus, and make you feel good for being productive,” Dr. Frates says.

TEN-MINUTE BREAKS
Dr. Frates says the best way to get the most out of a lengthy activity break is with a brisk walk outside (walking your dog is a great 10-minute break) or a video designed specifically for a mini-workout. “That way, you won’t have to think about what to do next, and you’ll save time,” she points out.

Try calisthenics, tai chi, yoga, or dance. You’ll find lots of videos online, especially on YouTube. For example, try the search term “10-minute workout for older adults.”

(Reprinted from Harvard Health.)

Benefits of physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic

There is a growing amount of research regarding immune system function and physical activity, and some evidence suggesting exercise may lessen the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Physical activity may enhance immune response to prevent upper respiratory tract infections and augment immune competency. Physical activity may also improve antibody production and interact with antioxidant enzymes.

REDUCES RISK OF CHRONIC MEDICAL CONDITIONS
Physical activity also reduces the risk of common chronic medical conditions which, as shown by CDC’s COVID-NET, have been seen in over 90 percent of hospitalized patients with COVID-19.  Individuals infected with COVID-19 are much more likely to be hospitalized and have poorer health outcomes if one or more chronic disease diagnoses are present.

The evidence linking a significantly increased risk for chronic disease if a person is physically inactive is well established. Cardiovascular (CV) disease had the highest prevalence among diseases that put patients at higher risk of worse COVID-19 disease, and CV disease risk is greatly increased with sedentary behavior.

DECREASES STRESS
Exercise can also decrease the activity of the nervous system, decreasing the body’s reaction to stress, and may help with anxiety of the pandemic, improving mental health outcomes for those who are stressed. In fact, exercise may be as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression.

Evidence suggests that walking, particularly outdoors, can aid in the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety. Adults 60 years and older with higher PA levels showed a 21 percent reduction in risk for depression compared to those with lower physical activity levels.

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