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Two women stretch before a class at Momentum Fitness. Rectangles created with tape designate a space for individuals to workout in while practicing social distancing.  (Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

As we continue on with the COVID-19 pandemic a few recommendations for improving sleep, maintaining physical activity, and consuming a healthful diet will go a long way to helping us to better weather these unprecedented times.  

Much of this content comes from the American Heart Association so thanks to their continued labors in promoting health promotion and disease prevention. 

Improving our sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep is when important processing, restoration and strengthening occur throughout your immune, nervous, skeletal and muscular systems. Good sleep benefits your whole body including your heart and brain with effects such as improved mood, memory and reasoning.

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University in New York City and a prominent sleep researcher notes that, “Sleep affects all aspects of life and the body.”

Although the amount of sleep each individual need varies, the National Sleep Foundation provides some general recommendations as follows:

  • 14-17 hours for newborns (0-3 months)
  • 12-15 hours for infants (4-11 months)
  • 11-14 hours for 1- and 2-year-olds 
  • 10-13 hours for 3- to 5-year-olds
  • 9-11 hours for 6- to 13-year-olds
  • 8-10 hours for 14- to 17-year-olds
  • 7-9 hours for adults
  • 7-8 hours for adults 65 and older

St-Onge notes that, “Quality sleep needs to be of adequate duration, restorative so you feel energized in the morning…”. That means you need several continuous hours of restful sleep each night.

The five sleep stages start with feeling drowsy and advance through deeper sleep until you reach rapid eye movement or REM sleep — when your brain is the most active and dreaming occurs. It’s during this stage that learning and memory are affected.

St-Onge advises to keep specific bedtimes and wake-up times and stick to a consistent schedule as much as possible. Adding schedules (routines) help regulate hormones and take advantage of your body’s natural circadian rhythms.

If sleeping problems persist despite one’s best efforts to remedy the situation, one should consult a qualified health professional to rule out breathing or other health issues.

Recommendations for getting better sleep include making your bed as comfortable as possible, keep your room at a cool temperature and avoid unnecessary bright light and technology use before bedtime.

Staying physically active

Justin Canada, Ph.D., a clinical exercise physiologist and Assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University notes that physical activity is a key element — even during the COVID-19 pandemic when many of us aren’t moving as much as we normally would.

Cardiorespiratory fitness is a measure of how well our body uses oxygen when we are moving. Improved cardiorespiratory fitness allows us to better prevent and tackle disease. Therefore, this can be considered to be a key clinical sign which provides a key indication of one’s physiological health. 

Think about taking some simple initial steps to add a little more physical activity into your life so as not to fall into the “new-normal” you may be experiencing.

1. Being physically active doesn’t mean you have to do an intense exercise regimen. It’s as simple as parking your car a block or two away from where you would normally. Just think about how you can fit an extra few minutes of walking into your day. The key is being purposeful and intentional with your movements.

2. Try to undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week which can be spread out over several days.  Taking a brisk walk where you may breathe a little heavier, your heart beats a bit faster and you may even sweat but not be short of breath is one example. Regular physical activity of this type can decrease the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes and help with your ability to control high blood pressure.

3. Anxiety and stress reduction occur through regular exercise as well as an improvement in the functioning of the immune system. Undertaking physical activities such as walking outdoors (while socially isolating at a safe distance), exercising indoors with (or without) videos, gardening or other activities can produce health benefits.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that some physical activity is better than none. Your psychological and physiological health can reap positive impacts when you get out and move a little more.

Just remember, some physical activity is better than none. 

Maintaining a healthful diet

Past columns have detailed the importance of consuming a healthful diet and provided links to evidence-based sites for relevant information. 

More: Plan your shopping: Good nutrition more important than ever in time of coronavirus

Healthful eating doesn’t have to mean dieting or giving up all the foods you love.

Educate yourself on how to provide your body with the nutrient-dense fuel it needs.

The American Heart Association (AHA) will provide a good start to achieving that goal.

Mark Mahoney (Photo: Mark Mahoney)

Mark A. Mahoney, Ph.D. has been a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for over 34 years and completed graduate studies in Nutrition & Public Health at Columbia University. He can be reached at marqos69@hotmail.com.

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