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  • Cathy Johnson

The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to go back to the basics with health

We can't control the pandemic, but there are some ways we can take charge of our health.

If the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic has you feeling powerless, maybe a reminder that lifestyle can profoundly shape your health is just the antidote you need. From the food and drink we choose to how active we are, we can claw back some control by going back to healthy basics, says public health advocate Sandro Demaio. "It's critical that people take care of their physical and mental health at the moment," says Dr Demaio who is also CEO of VicHealth. "A lot of things we do to maintain our connection and routine have gone out the window." A healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, limiting the alcohol we drink and getting nourishing sleep might not sound exciting but they are proven cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle, Dr Demaio points out. And there's not a superfood or yoga pose that can compete with this approach. It's true that to prevent infection with coronavirus, hand washing and social distancing are our best defences until a vaccine arrives. But it pays to remember the basic pillars of good health help fend off a range of chronic diseases every bit as unwelcome as COVID-19. These include heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Refocusing on a healthy lifestyle can also leave us in better shape to face the corona crisis in the shorter term by boosting our immunity and supporting good mental health, Dr Demaio says.

Move well, eat well, sleep well Moderate to vigorous exercise such as brisk walking and cycling, for instance, can bring about several positive changes in your immune system, including enhanced movement of important immune cells through the body. Although these changes are temporary, each exercise session represents a boost that reduces the risk of infection over the long term. There are many ways to continue an exercise program even when you are physically distancing. A healthy diet too can enhance immunity by providing essential vitamins and minerals and by encouraging a wide range of good bacteria in your gut. Recent research has shown these bugs play an important role in supporting the body's immune response to infection and can even boost your mood. Eating a wide range of plant-based foods seems to be helpful in nurturing the right bacteria, along with natural yoghurt and fermented foods like Korean kimchi and German sauerkraut. The Dietitians Association of Australia has tips for planning our pantry during the pandemic while LiveLighter suggests some recipes you can make with your staples once you're stocked up. Good sleep is also vital for immunity and it helps our mood and our ability to cope with stress as well. The Sleep Health Foundation has a fact sheet with useful tips. While you might be tempted to reach for alcohol to help you cope, it can increase our susceptibility to infection. It can also interfere with sleep and make you more prone to anxiety and depression. There are healthier ways to manage stress than alcohol (such as relaxation and meditation). And Dr Demaio suggests if you must keep beer and wine in the house, storing it in a cupboard rather the fridge can help minimise impulsive drinking.

Good habits are a long-term investment "Now more than ever we need to remind Australians how important it is to stay healthy, despite many of us understandably feeling stressed and anxious," says Ms Melissa Ledger, who oversees the LiveLighter healthy lifestyle program, funded by the Western Australian Government. "We know that the healthier we are, the better off we are to manage infections like the common cold. It's possible it will also help us with this current virus, although it's too early to say," she says. "That's one of the great things about making changes or maintaining healthy routines at the moment. It will keep you healthy now and for the long-term too." The current pandemic won't last forever and "if we let unhealthy habits become normal, it's really hard to kick those habits later on," Ms Ledger says. If you're a smoker, health experts are also keen to point out it's not too late to reduce your chance of a severe COVID illness if you quit now. As well as the huge long-term payoffs, some important benefits can kick in within four to six weeks. "Your airway inflammation will be improving, you will be less likely to have an acute heart problem or a common or garden-variety pneumonia. So your need for acute hospital care will diminish," says Professor Matthew Peters, head of respiratory medicine at Sydney's Concord Hospital.

An opportunity to foster healthy routines The fact many of us are grappling with daily routines that have been turned on their heads actually provides an opportunity for change, Dr Demaio says. Many of us are working from home, often for the first time ever. And with the commute wiped out, we may find ourselves with more of something that's often one of the biggest barriers to adopting healthier lifestyle: time. "Everyday life is so busy for most people. And very often your own health is the first thing to fall by the wayside. "The good news is at the moment, with so many events and activities cancelled, many of us have more time than ever." He urges us all to use any bonus time we have at the moment to stop and take stock. "Ask yourself, 'what can I afford to do, what do I have time to do [now] to improve my own health?'" If you can develop some basic cooking skills, for instance, you'll find it easier to whip up a quick and healthy dinner when life gets busier, he suggests. And as plenty of us are discovering, starting the day with a walk or run we once didn't have time for, can reap profound rewards in other ways too. "A lot of people are now doing exercise before work instead of sitting in a bus or car. What they're finding is their back pain has disappeared, or their diabetes has improved. Small changes like that can be a game changer."

Go easy on yourself Both Dr Demaio and Ms Ledger stress that while you don't want to let healthy lifestyle slip off your radar, it's important to be kind to yourself. "Now's not the time to be rapping yourself over the knuckles for something you're not doing for your health," Dr Demaio says. "Cut yourself some slack and focus on small sustainable steps." Even simply sitting on a couch reading a book, enjoying the chance to learn a new skill or catching up with a friend or relative for a video call, can be important in boosting mental health and wellbeing. "Jump on a video call over dinner or coffee so you can see the faces and the laughter. Those non-verbal cues are really important not to miss out on," he says. "There is a big opportunity in this crisis to rethink some of the basic things that are driving [our] disease risk in the longer term. To actually end up with a society that's healthier because of the disruption."

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