Staying healthy for your body and mind at the time of COVID-19 and beyond
by Sarah McEwen, PhD
Looking after yourself at this time is very important. Needless to say, we are all under a tremendous amount of stress which releases the stress hormone cortisol into our brains. This can dampen our immune systems making us more susceptible to sickness. Incorporating some of the following activities can help you stay mentally and physically strong.
Get at least 7 hours of sleep
For optimal physical and cognitive health, make sure that adults sleep get at least 7 hours of quality sleep, and children and teens get the appropriate recommended sleep.
Eat a healthy diet
Eating nourishing and healthy meals helps reduce inflammation in your body, which in turn can help boost immunity and overall health.
Get outside and take a nature walk or hike
In Japan, “shinrin yoku” is defined as making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. This technique can dramatically reduce stress levels. Endorphins released in the brain help boost mood, dispel stress, and dampen the feelings of anxiety and depression by diminishing the perception of pain. For this stress management technique, we recommend walking in nature for 15 minutes, 3 or more times a week. Just make sure you remain present in the natural environment, even if you are tempted to check your messages or send an email.
Sit quietly in some kind of mindful meditation
You may not feel like it, but mindful pursuits and practicing gratitude even for a few minutes a day can help calm an agitated mind. Mindfulness can be described as a way of training attention and fostering awareness. This can be done through a formal attention training program (mindfulness meditation) or the informal practice and application of being more attentive and engaged during daily activities. Meditation helps us to cultivate mental strategies to increase feelings of calm and decrease feelings of stress which will permeate throughout our day and help us cope when stress and anxiety arise. There are many apps such as Walking Up, Calm, Insight Timer and Headspace, that can help you focus on creating a little oasis of calm.
Taking the time every day to warm-up and stretch before engaging in work allows individuals an opportunity to feel refreshed, increase flexibility/range of motion, lower chances of injuring a muscle, while also reducing stress levels and boosting mental performance throughout the day.
Cognitive and social stimulation
During a time of social isolation and the reduced ability to engage in our regularly stimulating activities, such as teams, membership groups, classes, volunteer work, and community events, we must work even harder to maintain our cognitive and social habits. Social isolation and loneliness place people at risk for the development of mood disorders and even dementia. Healthy mental stimulation is often called cognitive training or “brain training.” Brain training might involve computerized cognitive tasks, compensatory strategies training, learning a new skill (such as syncing your Fitbit), and engaging in healthy leisure activities like reading a book or writing in a journal. Aim for 4 hours a week of dedicated healthy mental stimulation.
We recommend taking an online distance learning course, using a brain training app (Posit Science Brain HQ), or learning a new skill such as gardening, an instrument, photography or a new language. Try to make it social by hosting a virtual book club with your friends or hosting a live concert or trivia night on a video chat with friends and family.
This is also backed by extensive scientific work in physical activity and cognition which has shown the irrefutable effects of regular physical activity on increasing brain plasticity and boosting cognitive performance and mood. Research suggests that psychosocial and psychological factors are related to musculoskeletal disorders and health complaints. Studies show that physical exercise is associated with better mental health and improvement in these psychological complaints. If psychological complaints can be relieved by exercise programs and these symptoms are related to musculoskeletal disorders, this is a simple way to prevent such problems.
For exercise we have some general tips for maintaining optimal brain health benefits:
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends Aerobic Training for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical five days per week, or 20 minutes of more vigorous activity three days per week. Additionally, Muscular Strength training at minimum twice a week. 8-10 different exercises that target all major muscle groups with 8-12 repetitions per exercise per day.
- Instead of searching for the optimal dose of exercise, consider your current activity level, what you enjoy, and what’s a sustainable improvement.
- Combine exercise with nature (walking, hiking), which helps to decrease stress, too.
- Acquiring a new skill while exercising may have additional benefits, such as dance or tai chi.
- Ensure you include multi-component exercise. An ideal exercise program has a combination of aerobic, strength, motor skill, balance and flexibility training.
During the COVID-19 crisis (and beyond) we suggest the following apps and/online resources to stay engaged in exercise. Here are some recommendations for virtual exercise training based on your age and condition.
Healthy young and middle-aged adults:
- Mobility Matters
- Tai Chi Daily Series
- NIA Go 4 Life
- Sit and Be Fit
- SilverSneakers OnDemand
- Yoga with Adrienne
- YMCA 360
Cognitive & physical rehabilitation apps/activities:
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For more information, contact the Pacific Brain Health Center team at 310-582-7641 or schedule a consultation with one of our specialists. Virtual video visits are available.
About the Author
Sarah McEwen, PhD
Sarah McEwen, PhD, NSCA-CPT, is a Cognitive Psychologist and the Director of Research & Programming at the Pacific Brain Health Center. Her specialty is the study of physical activity and cognitive enhancement interventions to investigate biological, behavioral and health-related outcomes in patients suffering from cognitively debilitating disorders.
Last updated: April 4th, 2020