A More Resilient Opponent for the Next Pandemic
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our team will be interviewing experts from across the ecosystem to bring the HLTH community timely facts and updates.
As we know, the highest-risk groups for COVID-19 are made up of people who are 65 and older and people living with chronic conditions. Hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and other preventable chronic conditions make people susceptible to the most severe forms of COVID-19. Of course, the virus doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, but the general trend is that older people are at higher risk of the worst consequences of the disease. If they have underlying conditions, including preventable ones, that risk is compounded.
The trend has seemed to hold consistent even among younger people. The young people who have contracted COVID-19 and experienced the most severe consequences seem to be those who were less healthy before the virus struck. However, younger adults who contract COVID-19, particularly those who lack underlying conditions, typically have demonstrated greater resilience. They often report “feeling a little off” and then return to normal.
People in our communities of color are also bearing a disproportionate brunt of COVID-19 infection. This is no doubt correlated, at least in part, to the fact that they suffer disproportionate rates of lifestyle-related diseases.
Yet, independent of COVID-19, the evidence is clear that, if you help individuals at risk of physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other non-communicable diseases to adopt and maintain healthier lifestyles – engage in regular physical activity, follow healthy nutrition practices, manage stress, and sleep better – you can functionally slow the aging process. So, it’s at least imaginable that a population of individuals 65 years old and above whose health markers show them to be biologically younger would be at somewhat reduced risk for the most severe forms of COVID-19 or any future pandemic.
So, what if we viewed healthy lifestyle coaching and support as an adjunct piece of the epidemiological preventive puzzle for future respiratory-viral pandemics? I’m not talking about specific, individual immunity against COVID-19 or any other virus – although there is evidence to suggest that participation in regular, moderate amounts of physical activity can help enhance general immune function. But, consider how a population made up of healthier and more active individuals, might present the virus with a more resilient opponent, at the population level, among those infected. For instance, evidence overwhelmingly shows that exercise boosts mood and reduces levels of anxiety and depression. When people are dealing with any type of condition, if we can enhance their mental outlook, then their health outcomes tend to be better. Exercise has a role in boosting resilience both physiologically and psychologically.
To take the idea a step further, what if we didn’t just promote active, healthy choices but actually invested in making them possible and accessible to all people regardless of race and socioeconomic status? Tomorrow’s public-health strategy will, of course, endeavor to reduce the likelihood of individuals being exposed to a virus or contagion. But, future strategies should also include ongoing lifestyle behavior change, delivered at scale, to reduce the severity of the consequences of viral outbreaks like COVID-19 for those individuals who contract it.
I would like to see public health and epidemiology invite physical-activity and healthy-lifestyle promotion to their table. I believe we all could work together to equitably empower people to adopt healthier lifestyle behaviors on a population scale, and do it in the name of pandemic readiness, not as a way to address COVID-19-like maladies from an immunity standpoint, but as an adjunct tool to help with more effective management of the risks associated with battling such an illness.
It is my hope that evidence-based programs that are demonstrated to help people adopt and maintain healthier lifestyles, and those individuals who are qualified to deliver such interventions, can be part of the conversation around promoting optimal population health. When the worst of COVID-19 is past, public health should become better funded, better understood, and even more looked to as an essential part of the overall strategy that steel us against threats similar to what is so disrupting our lives today. Empowering people to be more physically active, eat more healthfully, better manage their stress and sleep routines, and live overall healthier lifestyles is a logical piece of that puzzle.