With Covid-19 breathing down our necks, many of us are finally coming to the inescapable conclusion that we should have an exercise routine.
With the busy lives we all lead, exercise is an unpleasant afterthought for many of us — just one more chore in addition to work-work, house-work, food shopping, dinner prep, kids’ after-school activities and after-dinner-work. The most many of us can manage is a dog walk in the morning, two or three desultory gym workouts a week and maybe a yoga class on weekends.
Of course, that’s better than nothing — but not by much. And in case you think I’m being judgy, I’m not — this is how I exercised for the first 40-odd years of my life, and I paid the price in the form of chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, weight gain and pre-diabetes.
Alas, daily physical activity (I avoid the word “exercise” because it makes people think of vein-popping gym workouts — but it’s so much more than that!) is essential to health.
Even moderate-intensity exercise, done regularly, can yield amazing cardio-metabolic benefits such as improved blood glucose regulation, increased levels of the “good” cholesterol HDL, lower triglycerides, reduced blood pressure and greater insulin sensitivity. Exercise can also help us regulate our mood — vital during times of stress such as these. And, most importantly in these viral times, regular exercise improves immune function by reducing inflammation, improving white blood cell function and regulating cortisol release.
For immune health, get off the couch — now!
If you lead a largely sedentary life and dread the idea of getting in shape, you may have an Inner pig-dog* that’s trying to talk you out of exercising: “You’re too old to get fit,” “Remember the last time you went to the gym and how painful it was?” “You don’t have the time,” “You look terrible in Lycra,” “There’s no gym near your house,” etc. Tell your pig-dog there’s a pandemic going on. That should shut it up.
Thankfully (for those seeking rapid gratification), the the immune-system benefits of regular exercise kick in quite quickly. In a 2005 study of healthy women aged 45-65, the researchers found that exercising for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity five times per week for only 12 weeks resulted in a 25% fewer episodes of upper respiratory infections compared to the control group.
Simply taking regular walks can help. In a 1993 study assessing risk of common cold in older women over a 12-week period, the researchers found that the incidence of the cold was 8% in elderly women who already exercised at moderate intensity regularly, 21% in previously sedentary elderly women who walked for 40 minutes 5 times a week during the study, and 50% in the sedentary control subjects.
On the other hand, it’s best to avoid strenuous exercise. Some studies show bouts of strenuous exertion (>1.5 hours with an average heart rate >75% maximum) can temporarily decrease immune function. Interestingly, elite athletes who train excessively tend to suffer from infections more frequently than others.
Walking my way to health
When I decided to get fit in earnest about four years ago, I started with a daily walk of 4,000 steps (I wore a pedometer to keep me honest). Initially, this felt like a major exertion, but after a few weeks I felt bored and decided to increase it to 5,000 steps, then 6,000 and so on. I now walk 7,000-8,000 steps each morning six to seven times a week and love every minute of it.
Since starting my daily walking routine, my glucose levels have returned to normal, I sleep like a baby, no longer have anxiety attacks and have lost about 15 lbs. Moreover, I haven’t had a cold or infection in three years — so something must be working! (Of course, it’s never just one thing. During this time I also lowered my intake of carbohydrates, started meditating every day, began working with a psychotherapist and got divorced. So what “worked”? Probably all of it in combination.)
After four years of daily walking I decided to add strength training into the mix to help keep my bones strong and counter middle-age flab. (As some of you may have noticed, muscle mass starts to dwindle at an alarming rate in middle age). Four months ago I joined a bi-weekly strength training class at the nearby rec center and, to my delight, I began to get noticeably stronger within about a month of starting the classes. Now that my gym has closed, I have to find a different way to maintain my precious muscle (see below).
Once you’re happy walking regularly, add other activities
If you’re not very active right now, walking is a great place to start. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week (that’s a 30-minute walk 5 times per week).
Ideally, walk in nature to reap the stress-reducing benefits of “forest bathing.” And if you can get in some inclines (maybe you’ll have to drive a few minutes to a hillier region), that would be even better. But just getting out and walking would be a great start.
Another great way to be active amid social isolation is to get back on your bike. If you feel cabin feverish, why not go for a bike ride to break the monotony of the day? Or, if you have a supermarket errand to run, take the bike. Added bonus: With most people holed up at home, the roads are safer and quieter than they’ve ever been (or will be, once the virus has passed).
Usually I’d also recommend yoga, stretching and strength training, though those have become harder to do amid widespread closures of gyms and yoga studios. Nonetheless, it’s possible to work your muscles even when you’re stuck at home.
The New York Times today published an excellent article on self-care during the coronavirus that I warmly recommend you read. Among others, it lists various video-based exercise routines you can do at home: —
A guide to yoga for people of all experience levels, with links to a variety of apps and classes.
If you’re looking to relax, this guide to yoga can help walk you through it.
A series of six-minute workout videos that exercise four main muscle groups: cardio, the lower body, the upper body and the core.
A guide to a nine-minute strength workout that should be used two to three times a week for maximum benefits.
A guide to short high intensity interval training workouts.
* “Inner pig-dog” is a translation from the German expression, “der innere Schweinehund” — the little voice inside your head that talks you into curling up on the sofa watching TV rather than doing housework or going to the gym. The pig-dog is actually your reptile brain trying to prevent you from doing something new and potentially dangerous. It’s not trying to harm us — if anything, by keeping us entrenched in safe and soothing routines, our pig-dog is trying to keep us safe. Pet it, thank it for looking out for you, and tell it: “Thanks, pig-dog — I know you mean well, but I got this.”