The 5 pillars of physical & mental wellness during a pandemic
For the vast majority of us, the past few months have brought lifestyle changes that we never saw coming.
Our normal routines have been altered in all kinds of ways – from having to work from home (or not working at all) to being cut off from friends and family and pressing pause on our favourite outdoor activities.
But, while the Corona pandemic and its wider impact may be beyond our control, there are certain things we can all do to improve our short-term situation.
In this article, we look at a combination of diet, sleep, exercise, social connectivity and mindset to try and support you on this journey we are navigating together.
- Eat a wide variety of foods
Including a range of colourful, plant-based foods in your diet is a good way to fill up on nutrients, especially the immune-supporting kind (1). Three ‘immuno must-haves’ are vitamin A (found in sweet potatoes and spinach), vitamin C (found in berries, lemons, tomatoes & peppers) and zinc (found in chickpeas, lentils, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, quinoa and eggs) (2). Making smoothies, stir-fry’s and soups is a great way to load up on these powerful nutrients.
- Keep hydrated
Ensuring a healthy fluid intake is crucial for keeping infections at bay (3), so try to drink six to eight glasses of water each day. Herbal teas can be a delicious way to help you reach your target; try making your own with fresh mint or ginger.
While taking comfort in your favourite tipple may seem tempting, remember that alcohol can be dehydrating. A limited amount is ok, but continuous, excessive consumption may even weaken your immune system.
- Limit convenience foods
Cutting back on foods like crisps, chocolate, frozen dinners and fizzy drinks will help you avoid excess salt, sugar and fat, not to mention the additives and preservatives found in most junk food.
- Supplement your diet sensibly
Supplements can be a great, natural way to enhance your immune system and other vital functions, offering a handy tool for on-going wellness. However, be aware of supplement brands marketing themselves as immune-boosting super-heroes. There are lots of things that support immunity, and they are most definitely not all contained in one pill (as useful as that would be).
Some supplementing options to consider right now are vitamin C (may help to fight infection and support immunity; 4), vitamin D (tentative research shows those with high levels are at reduced risk of contracting the virus or may experience less-severe symptoms (5)) and probiotics (you cannot have a well-functioning immune system without a healthy gut (6)).
Sleep comes with a number of crucial health benefits. Over time, suffering reduced sleep or disrupted sleep patterns on a regular basis can lead to health consequences that can affect your entire body.
Those who sleep well have a higher natural defence for fending off viruses (7). So as tempting as it is to stay up later during the current lockdown, choose health and aim for 7.5-8 hours a night.
To help you sleep faster and better:
- Sleep in a blacked-out room.
- Avoid light-emitting technology close to bedtime.
- Don’t consume caffeine after 2 pm.
- Take a relaxing bath (with magnesium bath salts) or shower before bedtime.
While staying close to home is non-negotiable for most of us, that doesn’t mean having to stand still. Being active has been shown to have many health benefits, both physically and mentally. It may even help you live longer (8).
Exercise can also increase the production of endorphins. These are known to help produce positive feelings, which we could all do with right now! (8)
Here are some simple suggestions for ways to keep moving without access to your normal workout activities:
- Walk – aiming to get 10,000 steps a day is widely recommended. A Harvard University study reports that the total amount of steps you do is the relevant factor over the speed of the steps. For older people, aiming for 7,500 steps per day reduces the risk of death (9). If you are not someone who does a lot of walking, make sure to ease into increasing your number of steps: lift your daily target by 1,000 each week and keep increasing weekly until you hit your goal.
- Keep mobile at home – walk up and down the stairs or do squats every 60 mins or so during the normal workday to keep active.
- Try online classes – many yoga studios, gyms and personal trainers are being resourceful and offering virtual training classes online, often free of charge. You can also tune in to YouTube at 9 am and try out HIIT with Joe Wicks, which has been helping hundreds of thousands of people to get fit with their kids every morning!
- Stay on your feet – If you are working from home, try setting up your workstation on a counter and place on top of books until it reaches a suitable level for you to work at standing level. Research shows that sitting for extended lengths of time is linked to increased risk of mortality (10) so try standing up as often as you can.
- Sit straight – Focus on your posture by setting up a proper workstation and avoid sitting slouched on the sofa or working in bed.
Social distancing is challenging for most people. As humans we are innately social; from the dawn of civilisation to the modern day, we’ve lived in groups – in villages, communities and family units.
While face-to-face contact is limited outside your household, that doesn’t mean you have to feel socially distanced. Think of it more as physical distancing; with the wonders of modern technology, there are lots of great ways to stay connected with friends and family.
- If you have access to technology, use it to stay in touch. Use your smartphone’s video capabilities when chatting to your nearest and dearest (seeing someone’s warm facial expressions can help increase the sense of connection in those feeling lonely (11)).
- Check in with your friends and family regularly. Wherever you can, assist people in your life who may be more vulnerable (for example, those with no access to the internet or who cannot easily use the internet to shop online).
- Spend quality time connecting with those you are living with. If you are in a lockdown situation, use this time to improve your existing relationships by scheduling time for proper conversations.
- It’s not just your loved ones who need your support; others in your community do too. Showing a little human kindness not only helps them, but can also improve your sense of purpose and value, improving your well-being (12).
If you have been feeling anxious, frustrated, scared or completely confused recently, you are not alone – these are commonly reported feelings at the moment. Following these simple strategies may help to improve your mental and emotional well-being:
- Limit and control your news and social media intake
Limit your exposure to the news and take control of your social media feeds – by following more accounts and pages that make you feel good.
While we all want to feel well informed, staying glued to the news, gives you more reasons to worry about things you cannot control. To keep calm but informed, limit your news consumption to ten minutes per day. If someone you follow on social media is sharing posts that are alarmist or worrying, try muting their posts to stop seeing their updates.
- Get information from reliable sources
Some legitimate and reliable sources of COVID-19-related news and updates include:
- John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center
- World Health Organisation
- Keep things in perspective
Take a breath and remember that most people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms. At the same time, work is being done to help people who may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions. If you take all the recommended precautions, including washing hands and practising social distancing, you are doing everything within your power to control this and that in itself is peace of mind.
Practising slow, controlled breathing can be a good way to manage symptoms of stress and anxiety. Breathing this way may help to regulate your emotions by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps slow the heart rate and restore the feeling of calm (13).
To benefit from this, try the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Part your lips. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.
- Close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.
- Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath.
- Make a loud exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.
- Practice this for four rounds of breath.
As we’ve seen, there are several measures you can take to help make the situation better for yourself. Some you may choose to incorporate; others may be a bit of a stretch for you at the moment. One measure though, that is not negotiable is kindness… to yourself.
While it is, of course, important to be smart about your nutrition and lifestyle choices during the current crisis, what is arguably more important is your happiness. If that means you need to overindulge now and then so be it. Watching a little more television than you usually do is ok, too. Aim to do your best as much as is possible. The rest of the time, be gentle with yourself and do what you need to do to get through the day.
1) Serafini, M. and Peluso, I. (2016). Functional Foods for Health: The Interrelated Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Role of Fruits, Vegetables, Herbs, Spices and Cocoa in Humans. Current Pharmaceutical Design. [online] 22(44), pp.6701–6715. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27881064 [Accessed 8 May 2020]
2) Wintergerst, E.S., Maggini, S. and Hornig, D.H. (2006). Immune-enhancing role of vitamin C and zinc and effect on clinical conditions. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism. [online] 50(2), pp.85–94. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16373990 [Accessed 9 May. 2020]
3) Popkin, B.M., D’Anci, K.E. and Rosenberg, I.H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews. [online] 68(8), pp.439–458 Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/ [Accessed 9 May. 2020]
4) Hemilä, H. and Chalker, E. (2013). Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23440782 [Accessed 9 May. 2020]
5) Vanherwegen, A.-S., Gysemans, C. and Mathieu, C. (2017). Regulation of Immune Function by Vitamin D and Its Use in Diseases of Immunity. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America. [online] 46(4) pp.1061–1094 Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29080635 [Accessed 11 May. 2020]
6) Resta-Lenert, S. (2003). Live probiotics protect intestinal epithelial cells from the effects of infection with enteroinvasive Escherichia coli. (EIEC) Gut, [online] 52(7), pp.988–997. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12801956 [Accessed 11 May. 2020]
7) Prather, A.A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M.H. and Cohen, S. (2015) Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep, [online] 38(9), pp.1353–1359. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26118561 [Accessed 8 May. 2020]
8) Anderson, E. and Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, [online] 4. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/ [Accessed 8 May 2020].
9) Lee, I.-M., Shiroma, E.J., Kamada, M., Bassett, D.R., Matthews, C.E. and Buring, J.E. (2019). Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 179(8), pp.1105–1112. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2734709 [Accessed 11 May 2020].
10) Biddle, S.J.H., Bennie, J.A., Bauman, A.E., Chau, J.Y., Dunstan, D., Owen, N., Stamatakis, E. and van Uffelen, J.G.Z. (2016). Too much sitting and all-cause mortality: is there a causal link? BMC Public Health, [online] 16(1). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4960753/ [Accessed 8 May 2020].
11) Saito, T., Motoki, K., Nouchi, R., Kawashima, R. and Sugiura, M. (2020). Loneliness Modulates Automatic Attention to Warm and Competent Faces: Preliminary Evidence From an Eye-Tracking Study. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 10. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6979038/ [Accessed 8 May 2020]
12) Weinstein, N. and Ryan, R.M. (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, [online] 98(2), pp.222–244. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20085397 [Accessed 11 May 2020]
13) Russo, M.A., Santarelli, D.M. and O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, [online] 13(4), pp.298–309. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709795/ [Accessed 11 May 2020]