As quarantining has continued over the past few weeks, I’ve found inspiration in Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” When it comes to our wellness, these times have given us the opportunity to put our everyday concerns on pause and rededicate ourselves to building healthy routines and habits (or upgrading our existing ones). I want to share with you 13 things all of us can do right now to upgrade our health and, with a little luck, keep COVID-19 from coming too close:
1) Spread the love, not viruses.
When we hear words like ‘social distancing,’ ‘quarantine, ‘and ‘self-isolation,’ it’s hard not to feel the negative associations – but now’s a good time to reframe how you think about them. When you begin to see these behaviors as ways to help save lives, including your own, the changes we’ve all been asked to make feel a lot less arduous. Wearing a mask or scarf in public, washing your hands frequently, wiping down surfaces, not touching your face, putting on gloves more frequently – look at these new anti-viral routines as acts of love on behalf of your family, friends and neighbors – and for the thousands of doctors, nurses, EMTs and first responders who are fighting for our lives.
2) Boost mood with movement.
Though we are all living confined lives these days, exercise is a fantastic way to boost immunity and keep your body strong, so put on your mask and get out there! Sure, lots of movement helps you look and feel good, but it also decreases inflammation and improves the function of every organ in the body – even as it lifts your mood. As the New York Times reported, a just-released study found that among a test group of sedentary people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, regular workouts helped lower levels of depression, hostility and other negative feelings, with mood benefits lingering for weeks, even after they stopped working out. The lesson here is to move as much as possible – even just a few thousand steps around the house every day can do mind and body a world of good!
3) Gift yourself with a daily brain vacation.
When we think of vacation, we often dream about palm trees, ocean breezes and the wonderful feeling of calm that comes with lying in a lounge chair in the sun. While it might be a while before we’re able to zone out on the beach again, we can experience similar feelings of peace and relaxation every day, plus decreased inflammation and increased immunity, by using our mandated downtime to start cultivating a meditation practice. To get started right away, here are a few excellent options online to help you get into the groove, and start enjoying the mental, emotional and physical benefits of a regular meditation practice:
- Insight Timer – offering a library of thousands of meditations, meditative instrumental music and insightful talks and podcasts
- Journey Meditation – live real-time meditation group classes all day, every day, led by engaging instructors with decades of experience
- Headspace – the subscription-based meditation and mindfulness app has just added a special landing page with free meditations especially for New Yorkers, but anyone can access and enjoy the benefits
4) Have a good snooze.
One more wonderful thing to do with your downtime? Sleep well! If you’re out of practice, now is a great time to retrain your body and upgrade your sleep habits. For a little insight on how to do it, take a look at my primer on how to get great sleep. Starting now, remember to:
- Turn off the news a few hours before bed – to start clearing your head of stressful thoughts and imagery.
- Turn in at roughly the same time every night – your body loves routine and consistency.
- Get a daily dose of morning light – have your morning coffee outside to expose your eyes and face to sunlight, which will increase serotonin production, and help regulate the release of sleep-inducing melatonin in the evening
- Treat yourself to nightly pre-sleep, wind-down rituals: try a hot bath to relax your muscles and release tension; read an actual paper book of poetry or on a soothing inspirational topic; try some restorative yoga; do a bit of gratitude-oriented journaling or, if you’re stressed, write down what’s on your mind; and don’t go to bed angry or ruminating on negative thoughts – it will only undermine the quality of your sleep.
5) Reframe ‘fine dining.’
At present, there is no known cure for COVID-19, but we are starting to piece together some of the risk factors that can increase the chances of a poor or fatal outcome. So far, one of the key factors appears to be metabolic syndrome. And while getting weight issues under control and becoming metabolically healthy doesn’t happen overnight, now is a good time to start focusing on it. One of the simplest ways to do that is to reframe what we think of as ‘fine dining’ and by that, I mean:
- Ramp up colorful, non-starchy veggies – as in, put them in everything, and eat the rainbow at all meals
- Load up on prebiotic & probiotic foods – to nourish your gut bacteria, which when they’re fed the wholesome foods they thrive on, will keep your immunity strong
- Dump the white stuff – as in sugar, potatoes, flour, etc., (as well as dairy, if it doesn’t agree with you)
- Eliminate processed foods as much as possible in these trying times
- Cut way back on alcohol – a small glass or two of wine every other day is more than enough
- Eat your largest meal at lunch, and go for a lighter, smaller dinner
6) Spices and herbs are your new daily medicine.
What’s great about herbs and spices is that virtually all of them have positive medicinal effects — some aid digestion and nutrient absorption, others have antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer properties, not to mention wonderful taste. They are the wellness wonders in your kitchen — so pour them on:
- Cayenne Pepper: Cayenne contains capsaicin which helps boost the immune system and provides anti-cancer protection.
- Cilantro and Parsley (fresh or dried): Both impart a lively, fresh taste as well as vitamins and minerals.
- Cinnamon: A tasty way to help stabilize blood sugar.
- Peppercorns: The piperine in black pepper can help prevent some cancers, and also contains vitamin C, vitamin A, flavonoids, carotenes and other anti-oxidants to combat free radicals.
- Rosemary: Helps prevent allergies and nasal congestion.
- Turmeric: Turmeric contains curcumin, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
7) Give your metabolism a well-deserved rest.
Now is an excellent time to get into intermittent fasting (IF) which adds fasting into your daily routine, slowly working up to 14 -to-16-hour increments. Doing so enables your body to enter a prolonged “fasting state” that keeps insulin levels low, reduces blood sugar and signals your body to burn fat stores. IF also optimizes mitochondrial function – which means greater natural protection against numerous pathogens and diseases, including COVID-19. How to master IF? All you need do is eat all your meals within an 8-10 hour period, eating dinner earlier and breakfast later
8) Engage in positive connections, despite the distance.
Beating back feelings of loneliness and disconnection in this age of social and physical distancing is, granted, a tall order. But despite the challenges, it is possible, and extremely important for your wellbeing. You just need to reach out, perhaps a bit more than usual. Here are some tips:
- Lean on technology – FaceTime, Skype and Zoom (be sure to lock down your security settings!) add an instant sense of connection. Being able to see expressions and reactions in real time instantly elevates the conversational experience and may help stave off depression in older adults.
- Create a call list – we all have older relatives who are tentative about calling you, so make it easy on them and get into a regular schedule of touching base on the phone every few days to shoot the breeze, see how they are getting along, and if they need any assistance, for instance, with groceries, dog-walking, sweeping the driveway, cutting the lawn and so on.
- Connect with help – if you are struggling emotionally, keep in mind that online therapy, or ‘tele-therapy,’ is a fast and effective way to get extra support, connecting you with a trained therapist to help get you through this difficult time.
9) Embrace compassion, and humanity.
In times of stress, instead of lashing out, stop, take a deep breath, get out of your head for a moment and connect with the African spiritual practice of ‘ubuntu.’ It means, basically, what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. It’s about giving back, caring, respecting and having compassion for others. Right now, we can practice ubuntu by supporting humanitarian organizations, like Ubuntu Pathways, with time, money or supplies.
10) Fill your head with interesting stuff.
Now that we are all home a good deal more than we could have ever imagined, it’s a good time to pursue any and all those subjects, skills, and things you’ve been curious about forever, but never had enough time for. Not only will you add to your knowledge base, but engaging with the unfamiliar, can help keep your mind in good shape and may protect you from depression. Research shows that consistently high levels of curiosity correlate with mental well-being and life satisfaction. Check out this insightful piece on the importance of curiosity, which many consider to be the secret to a happy life.
11) Refresh and re-imagine your life, filled with wonderful new routines and habits.
We all have our usual routines, routines that have taken years to develop, and suddenly, they’ve all but disappeared. Einstein’s quote works well here too – now is our opportunity to develop new routines, new habits, a host of new behaviors – all of which can help us become healthier, happier people. We have the chance to make our new way of living better! An easy start for new routines is to set a regular time when you wake up, eat your meals and go to bed
12) Enjoy social media as a social tool.
Being able to easily connect with friends, colleagues and loved ones is a great advantage of digital technology. But when it comes to ‘breaking news,’ being constantly connected and on high alert can be hard on your mental health. So give yourself permission to tune out. A little news, perhaps in the morning or briefly after dinner and before a good Netflix series, is easier to process than subjecting yourself to a 24/7 bad news blitzkrieg. There is no good reason to overfeed your anxiety, so know when to step away.
13) Support your health with supportive botanicals and nutraceuticals.
I am a big believer in getting as many nutrients as possible from the foods we eat, but I also know that sometimes we fall short, or may need extra support, and now is likely one of those times. While we don’t have a vaccine or tried-and-true treatment for COVID-19 yet, and probably won’t have for the foreseeable future, there is promising research on a number of botanical and nutraceutical agents that can potentially improve the body’s ability to fight off and recover from the illness. They deliver anti-inflammatory and anti-viral benefits – curcumin, quercetin, zinc, N-Acetyl cysteine, vitamins A, C and D, elderberry and more – and I believe it’s essential to take advantage of them to give our bodies a fighting chance. Taken thoughtfully and as directed, these supplements can empower our bodies to help modulate a healthy response to the viral onslaught we are facing right now. To learn more about these supplement options, check out this excellent guide and list from the Institute of Functional Medicine.