By Christine Zellers, MPP, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences
Making time to check all the to do’s in the healthy living category of life is never easy, add a pandemic and goals can really be put out of reach. However, now more than ever maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important. After all, battling a virus and all the challenges it offers is no easy task but doing it as a healthy person versus an unhealthy one could make the battle just a little easier and hopefully a lot more successful! Maintaining a healthy lifestyle means doing what is best for overall health which should include proper sleep, physical activity, and good nutrition. Do not stop reading because that list sounds daunting, even during a pandemic goals can be accomplished by making small changes for better health now and well beyond the pandemic.
Sleep has become more and more fleeting for American’s as stress and worry contribute to tossing and turning during the night hours. 60 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders and sleep problems that impair physical well-being and proper brain function. Sleep disorders and chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, and anxiety have a correlation. However, the link between lack of sleep and chronic diseases has been inconclusive since underlying behavioral or hereditary factors could be to blame rather than lack of sleep. Sleep improves emotional brain function but determining if mood is caused by lack of sleep or causing poor sleep could be difficult to determine. Checking in with a health professional if lack of sleep and poor mental health is a persistent problem is a good idea. Getting a good night sleep is important but sleep is not always an easy goal to obtain. To get a better night’s sleep try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, this adjusts the internal clock and keeps it regulated. Make sure to exercise every day to get restful sleep. Caffeine can prevent a person from sleeping and that includes not only coffee but sodas and energy drinks. Try not to use caffeine for 2-3 hours before bed or removing it from your day altogether if needed. Caffeine is a stimulant and too much could deter restful sleep or stop the onset of rest. Nicotine is also a stimulant, using nicotine like cigarettes, cigars or a vape can cause restless sleep or waking during the night. To quit contact one of the 11 free Quit Centers throughout the state of NJ. The Quit Center in Cape May is Cape Assist (609-522-5960) and in Atlantic County, Atlantic Prevention Resources (609-804-QUIT). The craving for nicotine often wakes users during the night and quitting can offer a better night’s sleep. Alcohol can cause interrupted or unsound sleep because it interferes with sleep stages during the night that are needed to give a feeling of restfulness. During the day take time to de-stress and find something that is relaxing like, exercise, a hobby or meditation. Taking a break from electronics can create a more peaceful sleep as well, try ‘unplugging’ an hour or two before bed to get the 7-9 hours per night needed for adults. Do not eat a huge meal too close to bed, it could cause digestion problems or overall discomfort. Lying awake can be frustrating, get up and change positions, take a warm bath, or read a book and try going back to bed a little more relaxed. Focus on something that is soothing and think about drifting or floating to emphasis peacefulness when trying to fall asleep. Sleep is essential but that does not mean it comes easy to everyone, these tips may take some time to start working but are well worth the effort.
Movement is an important part of a healthy lifestyle; it allows the body to function well and reduces the risk for chronic diseases. Many American’s lead a sedentary lifestyle and consume high calorie energy dense foods. Physical activity can prevent aging problems while making us feel energized and healthy now and in the future. Regular movement delays brain aging and prevents degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, and multiplesclerosis. The CDC recommends participating in joint-friendly physical activity to improve arthritis pain, mood, and quality of life. Movement done safely and appropriately supports maintaining a healthy weight and reduces the incidents of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Physical movement improves cognitive processes and memory, has pain relieving and antidepressant effects, creates a sense of wellbeing, aids in sleep and reduces anxiety and depression. Fitting activity into daily routines is sometimes difficult but making it a priority or even putting it on the calendar as part of the day could create the time needed to move. Find extra time in the day by putting down the smart phone or tablet and moving away from the television, instead use that time for physical activity. The USDA recommends that adults get 150 minutes per week of physical activity and 2 additional days should include weight bearing exercise. Moving for at least 150 minutes per week decreases the chance of chronic disease, however those who increase movement amounts to 300 minutes reduce the risk even further. For optimal results participate in a variety of physical activities that include weight-bearing, cardiovascular and stretching. Even though movement expends energy it provides a feeling of being energized and more focused. Being active during a pandemic is a new challenge, gyms are not open or scheduling a convenient time to go to the gym could be tough. Schedules have been adapted, people are working from home, children go to school at home now and even the holidays were virtual, meaning physical activity just like everything else in a pandemic can be done! If getting to the gym is out of the question find an online program to use, find a small space to exercise at home. If being outside works better, try outside activity to keep moving. Walking is a great way to start slow and build up to higher intensity. Fresh air and sunshine are good mood supporters but if it is raining out try stretching or weight bearing exercise like squats and pushups for rainy day alternatives. There is no shortage of options to find ways to move, do not make excuses rather make another plan to be physically active!
A healthy eating pattern includes a variety of foods that are nutrient dense and low in sugar, fat, and sodium. To begin a healthy eating plan start adding fruits and vegetables each day, a little at a time. Colorful produce reduces the likelihood of some cancers, assist in preventing heart disease, and stroke and lowers blood pressure risk all while helping to maintain a healthy body weight. Americans do not eat enough vegetables and fruits with only 10% getting recommended allowances of vegetables and 20% eating enough fruits. There are five various subgroups of vegetables and fruits that are categorized by color and eating different colored produce rounds out a well-balanced diet. While all produce is valuable the different colors and various types of veggies and fruits offer multiple vitamins and nutrients for disease prevention and overall good health. For instance, red produce helps fight heart disease, cancers, and infection. Orange and yellow produce is good for vision, immunity, and lowering the risk of some cancer while green is good for strong bones, cancer, and inflammatory disease reduction. Purple and blue may lower the risk of cancers, promote memory and healthy aging and white, brown, and tan lower risk of some cancer, and can lower cholesterol. Although it might not seem it, a pandemic is the perfect time to add more vegetables and fruit to support a healthy immune system. Add a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits in salads, as sandwich toppers, in sauces, pizza, as side-dishes, or as snacks. Including vegetables and fruits along with lean protein, diary and whole grains promotes overall health and disease prevention.
Staying healthy during a pandemic is problematic, social isolation, lack of resources, new work, and school regimens, the list is endless and practicing healthy habits now will make keeping them in the future easier. To better cope with pandemic stress make time to talk to friends and family regularly by phone or computer. Find something fun to laugh about, laughter is great medicine when feeling down. Be kind to others and to yourself, realize that this will not last forever and control what can be controlled while letting things that cannot be controlled go. For instance, safety in the home can be controlled with hand washing, wearing a mask outside, eating healthy, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep. Things that cannot be controlled will not change no matter how much time is spent worrying about them. Find time each day to just sit quietly, meditation relaxes the mind, sitting still and silent aids stress relief. Go for a walk and enjoy nature and live in the minute. Play with the kids and realize how nice it is to spend a few minutes away from homeschooling and work to be together playing. Be grateful, people who find time to be grateful each day feel healthier mentally. There may be a lot of things going wrong right now but there are things to be grateful for, even in the toughest of times. Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition all contribute to better health but taking time to do these things now, during a pandemic, is an investment in health now and in the future.