RENO – With the COVID-19 pandemic
and shelter-in-place posing great challenges to families and households in
Nevada, University of Nevada, Reno, provides this information to help our
citizens improve their mental and physical health during this time.
Staying healthy and living an
active lifestyle poses challenges to all Americans. In the U.S., only 19
percent of women and 26 percent of men currently meet the CDC’s (Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention) 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for
Americans, which recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of
moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of
vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination, each week.
If the COVID-19 shelter-in-place
has brought anything to our lives, it may very well be the opportunity for
self-care, stress management and more physical activity. But sadly, it has
become a time of stress, weight gain, depression and decreased activity for
many. Harnessing the power of physical activity may be one of our most valuable
tools to maintain quality of life, improve mental health and manage disease
such as COVID-19 infections.
How does physical activity affect my immune system? Immune systems are critical to fighting infection. During an infection, our immune system finds the virus and attacks it. When we are physically active, working muscles produce compounds that help boost our immune system and make us less susceptible to infections.
The primary infection of COVID-19
is in the lungs. Although exercise studies have not yet been conducted on
COVID-19 patients, we know that physical activity improves immunity, decreases
inflammation and decreases viral respiratory infections that are apparent in
COVID-19 sufferers. The key, however, is the muscles must be used for this to
How does physical activity affect mental and emotional health? The CDC’s 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans reports that participation in regular physical activity reduces symptoms of anxiety in adults and older adults and reduces the risk of both developing depression and improving many of the symptoms of depression. Physical activity also lowers the risk of developing cognitive impairment, such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, and is associated with more energy and less fatigue during the day and better sleep at night.
How much physical activity does it
take to make a difference? One of the more interesting findings is that while
doses of exercise (how much is needed) depends on the desired outcome or goals,
few doses of physical activity are needed to impact our mental health and
immune system. Moderate-intensity physical activity, such as walking, not only
has the best impact on the immune system, but also can improve cognition, such
as academic performance, mental processing speed, memory and executive function
(concentration and attention).
Extreme vigorous exercise, on the other hand, may temporarily reduce immune function and negatively impact our mental health. So while moderation is key, many folks, especially those with mild mental health disorders, may not be getting enough physical activity or walking steps. The average American, for example, takes between 5,000 and 7,000 steps per day (right foot, left foot is two steps).
2018 study by Paquito Bernard and
other researchers found that mental health improved the most (a very steep
incline) when taking from one to 5,000 steps per day. Bernard observed a
plateau or leveling off from 5,000 to 16,000 steps per day and a decline in
mental health scores after 16,000 steps. This means more is not always better.
It also means that the greatest improvements in mental health can be seen in
individuals who begin walking a little each day, particularly for those who
So how do we start or maintain activity
during a time of isolation and social distancing? There is no minimum time to
perform an exercise activity. It can be 30 minutes, 20 minutes, five minutes or
two minutes. Just move more frequently throughout the day. It all adds up.
Walking is one of the safest and most readily accessible physical activities.
To increase physical activity during a time of social distancing and
shelter-in-place, try one of these:
• Walk your dog around the block
daily. A trip around the block can add 1,000 to 2,000 steps to your daily count
(2,000 steps is roughly one mile). Use a daily step counter or smartphone to
monitor and gradually increase your steps.
• Go for a bike ride. You don’t
need an expensive bike. Older bikes without a lot of gears can really work your
• Run up and down the stairs.
Either use a flight of stairs in the house, or step up and down outside on a
• Try some simple free weights. You don’t need a dumbbell. Use a vegetable can from your cupboard or fill a water bottle with dirt or sand for bicep curls or lateral arm raises (lifting out to the side).
• Try some squats. Fill a backpack
with books, hold it in front of your body with your arms through the straps,
and then squat slowly. Keep an upright posture, keep the backpack close to your
chest (hug it tightly), and don’t squat any lower than 90 degrees.
• Put on your favorite music
playlist and dance, dance, dance.
• Take a free class online. Many
health clubs are offering free workouts streaming online during the shelter-in-place.
You can also find American College of Sports Medicine Summit workouts free on
• Search on the Internet for apps
such as the 7-Minute Workout: Daily HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training)
Exercises at Home recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine, and
download them or watch them on YouTube.
• Try something new such as Yoga,
Tai Chi or Qigong that includes relaxation, mindfulness and meditation
Everything counts. Find
opportunities to move.
American College of Sports Medicine
(ACSM) Staying Physically Active During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Anne R. Lindsay is an associate
professor and state specialist with University of Nevada, Reno Extension, a
unit of the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural