Well, these are certainly strange times we are living in right now. I am sure you will agree that we are being challenged to the very core of what it means to be human by the implementation of a global lockdown. We are communicators by nature, and having that fundamental part of our lives stripped away is an unnatural and difficult thing to cope with. It is fortunate that we have the ability to connect online as we do in the modern world. But even that may have it’s health hazards…
I thought I would write this short post because I am concerned that we will see an epidemic of other health issues coinciding with the Coronavirus lockdowns.
One of my son’s has been living in Bejiing since last summer and has, of course, been caught up in the first wave of the Coronavirus over in China. He is well, thankfully, but has been in lockdown for approximately 3 months now. His flatmate left for Thailand at the start of the issues in Wuhan and so my son has been on his own. Fortunately he has been able to keep occupied, doing bodyweight exercises, playing his playstation, reading, keeping in touch with friends online, watching movies and messaging the family etc. However, about a month ago he started to get severe neck pain and terrible headaches – and, of course, it is always so worrying when one of your children doesn’t feel well and you cannot get to them! At first he thought he had injured himself doing some exercises but that didn’t seem to be the issue. The problems persisted.
I talked with him at length and came to the conclusion that it is the long periods of sitting playing his games and staring at screens generally (TV, movies, computer, phone etc) for many hours a day that is straining his eyes and giving him headaches. (He commented that his eyes had starting feeling dry much of the time). I suggested that he starts keeping screen time to a minimum where possible and takes lots of breaks during any time that he is using his laptop or phone to move around, and even play his playstation games standing up as much as he can, perhaps even moving about. After just a few days of implementing these strategies he is already feeling better. The parks and public areas in Beijing have now been reopened, and so he is able to go outside and walk about and just get out of the apartment for longer periods of time.
But his experience led me to think about the current situation worldwide. It is not unreasonable to believe that we are now going to see numerous people – old and young – who are stuck at home for weeks, or perhaps even months, on end starting to see symptoms like these. Eye strain, headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and eventually back pain. A severe lack of exercise – particularly weight bearing exercise – will eventually lead to issues such as sarcopenia (muscle degeneration) and osteopenia (degeneration of bones). This is not scaremongering – this is fact. If you do not use your muscles you will start to experience a loss of strength and actual muscle tissue – and this happens pretty quickly! And the older you are, the quicker this will happen as we lose muscle tissue anyway as we age.
I appreciate it is not easy – we are being told to stay inside as much as possible and to only go out for one period of exercise daily, and for many people this will just be walking or perhaps cycling. But this really isn’t enough to combat the diseases that stem from a sedentary lifestyle. What I believe to be imperative is adding to your one bout of outdoor exercise by including some resistance training exercises at home, which is perfectly do-able even in a small space. And you do not need any equipment to accomplish this. Every body has a body – so let’s use it!
There are many variations for exercises if you are a complete beginner or have any issues that prevent you from performing certain exercises. Starting some basic bodyweight exercises at home need not be time consuming or fill you with trepidation. For some beginner options click here to get started! Once you are familiar with the exercises you don’t need to use the screen to do them – just experiment with harder options.
Although a lot of people are trying to get active and stay positive during the early stages of this lockdown, it may be that we are stuck in this situation for a lengthy period of time. This is when it is so easy to get frustrated, disheartened, lose motivation and become depressed. This, in itself, can then lead to unhealthy eating habits such as stress eating and reaching for ultra-processed fake foods that have no nutritional value, but instead contribute towards metabolic syndrome (conditions such as hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease etc), which is exactly what you should be avoiding if you want to make a good recovery from Cornonavirus, should you contract it. The statistics are showing that individuals with compromised health are suffering worse symptoms and are not recovering well – often not at all. This is scary stuff.
Keeping yourself as healthy as possible during this time is extremely important. And trust me, I understand that it is not easy. If you usually go to an exercise class, then it is probably not only for the exercise itself but also to connect with other people, and this is something that we are sorely missing right now. It can be hard to keep motivated to exercise when you are inside by yourself, but perhaps setting yourself a new challenge such as learning to do full push-ups, or starting a couch to 5k program (we are still allowed to go outside for exercise at the time of writing), or learning how to train with kettlebells (my Kettlebell Cure Beginners Program can be accessed here) can help keep you on track. Resistance bands are extremely effective, versatile and relatively cheap to buy and don’t take up any storage space – they are easy on the joints and you will be surprised how hard you can work your muscles with them.
If you feel inspired by training along with an online program then there are many out there on YouTube (I have two free workout playlists here and here). Alternatively you can train alongside family and friends by setting up a daily Facetime, Messenger, What’s App or Skype call. Perhaps have a weekly fitness session all together on the HouseParty app. I have started a Family Fitness group with my sisters-in-law. It is just half an hour every day, but it helps to get them moving and gives us an opportunity to connect with each other, have a laugh and catch up. And, of course, there are several workout programs being televised to help get the nation up and moving. It is important to participate in something every day. One of my other son’s lives in Australia and has suggested we do a burpee challenge together – the aim is to complete 100 burpees a day, which can be done either in one go or spread across the day. Doing something like this can help keep you motivated as you are accountable to someone else. You can help them when they are feeling less motivated and vice versa. And spreading the exercise throughout the day will help keep you active and alert all day long.
Exercise provides benefits both physically and mentally. It activates brain derived neurotrophic factor, (BDNF) which improves cognitive function, memory and helps prevent depression and anxiety. In this study of non-demented older female volunteer twins, the researchers found consistent and strong evidence that increased leg power was associated with improved cognitive ageing over the following 10 years.
Exercise is associated with an anti-depressive effect in patients with mild to moderate forms of depressive disorders. It is not only aerobic exercise that provides this beneficial effect, but various different forms, such as resistance training and high intensity interval training. Subjects who exercise regularly tend to have lower depression scores than the sedentary ones. Within a range of treatment programs, patients ranked exercise to be the most important element.
And at a time when we really need a well functioning immune system, exercise can help by upregulating this and repairing damaged cells via a process called autophagy. Autophagy is when our body carries out quality control by removing damaged cells and either recycling their components or getting rid of them through programmed cell death (apoptosis). This helps to keep your system rejuvenated and your immune system functioning well.
Regular exercise will help you:
- Improve mitochondrial health
- Increase energy levels
- Boost immune system
- Increase muscle mass, strength and power
- Increase bone density
- Improve mood
- Improve cognitive function
- Reduce hypertension
- Reduce risk of chronic disease
It is important to try and build in various different types of exercise into your weekly routine. Walking is great for general movement, connecting with nature and engaging in mindfulness. Aerobic exercise such as jogging or dancing will help improve cardiovascular fitness, but it won’t increase muscle tissue or bone density. Strength and resistance training is excellent for improving muscle tissue, bone density and also cardiovascular fitness if it is done properly. It is important to make sure that you know what you are doing and to start with the basics if you are new to strength training. However, it is appropriate for ALL ages, so just because you are older does not mean that you cannot participate in strength training, in fact it is probably even more crucial that you DO engage in it on a regular basis.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) is another fantastic form of exercise that will help improve your cardiovascular system plus build muscle and bone – especially if you incorporate some resistance training in your circuit. Jumping exercises have been shown to increase bone density and the beauty of HIIT is that it is done in a short timeframe, meaning that you will not be jumping and leaping about for hours on end! A short workout of 5-20 minutes can be extremely effective if you are working to full capacity. Even if you are older a few jumps up and down several times a day can make a big difference to your bone density and muscle tissue. Jumping jacks or pretending to jump rope are great starter jumping exercises for older folk.
Incorporating different exercise modalities into your day will help break the monotony, take you away from your screens, prevent neck, back and eye strain, PLUS give you all the benefits above. You don’t have to just do one long workout in the day. Break it up into bite-sized pieces. Do 10 minutes first thing in the morning when you get up, then perhaps go for a long walk. Do another 15 minutes before lunch. Mid afternoon coffee break can now turn into a 10-20 minute exercise session. Perhaps do some stretching in the evening before bed. Building this into your daily routine doesn’t need to be difficult – or time consuming. But let’s face it, with nowhere to go right now it will definitely help pass the hours – in a much healthier way!
I know that it is difficult not to get drawn into being constantly online at a time when there is little else for us to do with so many opportunities having been removed from our lives, but I urge you all to step away from the screens as much as possible. Move about, read a book, play games, put some music on and dance, take the opportunity to learn something new, start doodling, colouring, painting etc… If you start to experience neck and shoulder pain, back aches and headaches, these could all be connected to screen time, eye strain and sedentary behaviour.
I am aware of the irony that reading this blog post has meant spending time looking at a screen! When I was a child we had a television program that was made by children for children called “Why Don’t You?” It was aimed at encouraging children to be creative and imaginative and not sit in front of the TV all day. The beginning of each program started with the kids shouting “Why Don’t You….Switch off your TV set and go and do something more interesting instead?!” This is kind of the same idea! Why Don’t You….turn off your computer and go and do something more active, interesting, creative, productive….instead?
Let me know what YOU have been doing to keep active every day!