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How (and Why) to Stay Active While Social Distancing

 

By Dan Burden, Director of Innovation and Inspiration, Blue Zones, LLC

Balancing Individual and Community Wellbeing

 

“We find ourselves in remarkable circumstances this year. The COVID-19 pandemic makes clear our global human interconnectedness and the responsibilities we have to one another. We have no precedent for its challenges, but we do know that our best response relies on the sort of global empathy, cooperation, and community building that sit at the heart of our movement.”

—Katherine Maher, Wikimedia Foundation CEO

We are living through the most profound global awakening since World War II. Lifestyles and systems around the globe are likely to change, and many aspects should. As we stay in place, considering the future, we are faced with the question: How do we stay active and connected to our environment while staying a healthy distance from others in our community? Perhaps we can take the advice of Hippocrates, routinely credited with the quotation, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” We can get out and walk.

Walking is man's best medicine. —Hippocrates Click To Tweet

Current public health guidelines call for maintaining a proper 6-foot physical distance from others. And if COVID-19 is to come in waves of infection, as some predict, we may need to adapt our lifestyles for much longer than just the next few weeks or months. With this in mind, designing our days and activities to ensure we can stay active and experience the outdoors safely and healthfully is critical. No less than Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park and father of modern landscape architecture, has asserted that nature “is favorable to the health and vigor” of humans, and that urban green spaces are the “lungs of the city.”

How Moving Naturally Can Improve Overall Health

It is not a revolutionary idea that getting out and moving is beneficial. Indeed, contemporary research affirms the many health benefits of routine physical activity.

We cannot afford the impacts of a sedentary lifestyle on our physical and mental health, not least of all long-term weight gain. Regular exercise, especially being in the open air and in other natural environments, helps us build stronger immune systems. Possible benefits of a dose of daily walking include the following:

  • Routine daily physical activity is known to reduce the risk for the host of chronic diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of American’s prematurely every year: cardiovascular disease and stroke, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, osteoporosis and it’s complications, and an ever-growing list of cancers.
  • Those who are active are at lower risk for depression, and for cognitive decline as they age.
  • Physical activity is a known immune booster, perhaps through changes in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body’s immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before.
  • The age-related decline in immune function is also related to decreasing vitamin D levels in the elderly. As people age, they face two risks to their vitamin D levels. If they stay indoors more they get less sun and therefore produce less cholecalciferol via UVB radiation. And as a person ages, the skin becomes less adept at producing vitamin D.
  • The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature rise may help the body fight infection better. (This is similar to what happens when you have a fever.)
  • Exercise slows down the release of stress hormones. As stress appears to increase the chance of illness, lowering stress hormones may be protective.
  • Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways. This may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness, and in some cases reduce how long we are ill.
  • The aging population benefits from social contact, even at a safe social distance. Not only are they our most vulnerable to COVID-19, but social isolation fuels depressive disorders, which are a leading cause of disability. Dan Burden recalls, “My mom lived to be 93, ten years after my dad died at 85. What kept her going strong was the number of neighbors that came to visit her daily.” A safely-distanced daily walk can be a part of maintaining contact with the world.

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends accumulating a minimum of 150 minutes a week of physical activity – think 30 minutes, most days of the week – this provides myriad physical and mental health benefits. Unfortunately, many Americans assumed that meant driving to fitness centers, signing up for programs and exercise classes, and even walking indoors in malls and on treadmills. (One has to wonder what Olmstead would have thought about the very idea of mall walking.) One result of the focus on structured exercise is that less than 20% of Americans meet those guidelines.

Movement in the Blue Zones

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Fortunately, we can look to the work of Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones, for insight on this very question. He found that the healthiest people in the world maintain lifestyles where they move naturally. Notably, he didn’t see them out exercising, but rather getting physical movement throughout their daily routines. Walking, riding bikes, chopping wood, and gardening weren’t “physical activity,” they were simply part of the fabric of life. His insight suggests that the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic could also present us with a moment of opportunity. Perhaps it is possible that with gyms and health clubs closed, we can all once again explore the idea of moving as part of our daily routines, with an activity as simple as walking.

Follow the Footsteps of Centenarians

None of us can take more than a few weeks of isolation without being outdoors and being active. Some of us will turn to exercising in front of video screens, but for many, that won’t be enough. So, long term we must turn to outdoor activities that keep us in motion, naturally. Walking, bicycling, and gardening aren’t just a nice idea – they may be the very best things we can be doing for our physical and emotional health. Our local parks, trails and open spaces have always served as places where people can find respite and seek peace and restoration. During this time of uncertainty, these places are needed now more than ever.

5 Ways to Stay Active, Healthy, and Safe During the Pandemic

Let’s follow the example of those natural movers Dan learned from in the original blue zones communities around the world.

1. Walk together.

Walk together, safely maintaining six feet of physical separation, but fully reconnecting with the outdoors and whatever natural environments are available to us. Or, make virtual walking dates with your moai either over the phone or using a video streaming service like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Houseparty.

2. Join a virtual club.

Join a virtual “club” to stay accountable and meet new friends. The “Walking Book Club” and the Blue Zones Life Facebook page are a great way to meet new virtual friends who share your values and interests.

3. Schedule it.

Put walks on your calendar or as an alarm on your phone so you are nudged into movement daily.

4. Explore your local trails.

Find a bike trail in your area and explore with family.

5. Get outside.

Spend 30 minutes outside a day (an hour is better!). People who spend at least 30 mins outside in nature report better mood and well-being

 

Whether it’s a walk a walk around your neighborhood (where you may end up seeing neighbors and waving to friends who are enjoying their porches or balconies), enjoying a walk up and down a tree-lined street, finding peace along a beautiful waterfront, or biking through a new trail, all hold the promise of strengthening your heart, powering up your energy, and boosting your mood.

 


Acknowledgments: Mark Fenton and Danielle Schaeffner

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