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Jenn West: Exercise is a good prescription for controlling COVID-19, maintaining quality of life

By Jenn West

Exercising is probably not at the top of our list as we struggle with how to protect ourselves, our families and our communities during the coronavirus pandemic. But maybe it should be.

The Healthy Rowan Coalition believes in the power of physical activity. It may be exactly what we need to move our community in a positive direction, says interim Health Director Alyssa Harris. 

Coalition member, Dr. Amy Wilson, a board certified lifestyle medicine physician and medical director at Community Care of Rowan Clinic, says physical activity is an important tool for controlling COVID-19 infections and maintaining quality of life, both physical and mental. 

“I have been prescribing physical activity to my patients since 2018; it’s an important part of the patient care plan,” Wilson said. “Medication has its time and place, but many of the chronic diseases our residents are experiencing are due to lack of activity, stress and not eating enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. So, we are working on talking with patients about their lifestyle, especially during the pandemic. Many patients who have increased and maintained regular physical activity feel better and have lowered blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. These improvements help combat viral illnesses such as COVID-19.”

Physical activity is effective for preventing, treating and potentially reversing many chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers — all of which increase the risk of severe illness and death among those infected with coronavirus. Being moderately active prior to being infected with COVID-19 may reduce the severity of the illness after infection. 

When you are physically active, your muscles release compounds that boost your immune system and reduce inflammation, similar to taking a daily medication. If a viral infection enters your body and makes its way to your lungs, your immune system is more likely to fight the impact of the infection.  

Being active can improve your mood and help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It can help you sleep better and have more energy, both of which can help improve your mental health. Some research has shown that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety than those who are inactive. For residents who have and are currently experiencing high levels of stress due to the loss of a loved one, job or connection with family and friends, being active is a key component of their care plan.  

You can reduce your risk of a severe viral infection and risk from multiple chronic diseases by taking a walk or going for a bike ride every day. If possible, we recommend walk and talk therapy following social distancing guidelines. Walk with a friend or call one while you are on your walk. Increasing your activity and connection with others can significantly boost your immune system.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150-300 minutes per week of moderate intensity, aerobic physical activity. Dr. Wilson’s countywide prescription is simple: start with 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes however and wherever you can. Work up to 20-60 minutes per day. The prescription length is forever. 

Every active minute counts! Let your doctor know that you are starting to move more and talk about how that can help improve your health.

To learn more about how you can fill your physical activity prescription visit: healthyrowan.org and click “physical activity.” You will find videos and links to local resources. 

Jenn West is Lifestyle Medicine Program Manager for the Rowan County Public Health Department and a certified exercise physiologist.

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