By J.Ron Eaker, M.D.

Whether you are a student, teacher, or parent, returning to school, this year is likely to include uncertainty and apprehension.  One hopeful payout from the COVID epidemic is learning that adaptability is a valuable and necessary trait. Simply put, there are some things outside of our control and others within it. We all need the wisdom to distinguish between the two.

One area within our control is our physical and emotional wellbeing.  While genetics plays a major role in health, it is important to always remember that genetics simply loads the gun. It is behavior that pulls the trigger. 

With that in mind, here are five things that will bolster your family’s health and protection from major complications of COVID. These may sound simplistic, but when it comes to results, doing is the equivalent of surviving and thriving.

• Avoid smoking.  It perplexes me that in 2020 nearly 34 million Americans smoke! This warning applies to vaping, e-cigarettes or chewing tobacco. The list of diseases and other morbidities that arise from tobacco and tobacco-like substances is compelling: 1 in 5 deaths are directly attributed to these toxic substances. There are programs, medications and assistance for those who are sincere about stopping, but the best course is to never start.

• Decrease body fat.  Notice, I did not say lose weight.  The key to reducing health risk is not necessarily tied to weight loss but reducing body fat.  You can be thin and still be at risk if your body fat percent is over 32% for women and 25% for men.  There are several ways of determining percent body fat such as skin calipers, body composition scales, Dexa scans and whether you float easily in a pool.  Fat tends to float, dense muscle sinks, so the easier you float the more likely you are to have excess body fat.  Albeit a bit unscientific, it does promote gameplay at your next backyard barbecue.

• Exercise. This doesn’t mean running three miles a day, although that would go a long way towards improving physical and mental wellbeing. Walking for 10 minutes three times a day can significantly reduce your chance of developing type 2 diabetes.  Look for creative ways of being more active each day like taking the stairs, parking farther from your destination and opting to stand instead of sit.  If you have a sedentary job, set your watch each hour for a 3-minute movement break.  Even this relatively small effort reduces your chance of developing several chronic illnesses.

• Be social…with the right folks. Having a network of social contacts is even more important in the post-COVID world.  Numerous studies show that older folks who interact with others daily have lower rates of physical and emotional problems.  That is not to say that introverts are destined to wither away, just that regular social contact has been associated with fewer feelings of isolation, depression and even better sleep.  Interestingly, there seems to be a negative association risk: one study suggested that if you have a close friend who is overweight, you have an increased chance of being overweight yourself!

• Be a part of a religious group. I bet you did not see that one coming.  There is a body of literature that suggests that people who actively participate in religious organizations (church, synagogue, mosque, etc.) have lower incidences of chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes and a lower overall early mortality rate.  I am sure some of it goes back to the previously suggested importance of social interaction, yet even when this is factored out, religious folks tend to have healthier lives than their matched non-religious counterparts.  I could spend a whole essay or two on this subject (and I may) but suffice it to say that joining a group simply because of the perceived health benefits may not produce the results you seek. Authenticity seems to have played a role in attaining the tested health benefits.

In a world blown wide open by viruses, uncertainty and social disruption there is solace in embracing actions you can control that lead to positive outcomes. There is value in prevention, so stay connected to healthy choices!

Photo by clique images on Unsplash