As colder months quickly approach, Charlotte residents may be wondering about the best way to boost their immune systems, especially in light of COVID-19. With the onset of flu season adding to our worldwide battle against the coronavirus, local industry experts say it’s going to take some commitment.
Committing to a healthy lifestyle can be easy — in theory. The execution aspect can present challenges, however. While searching for a quick fix may be tempting, ensuring that you practice healthy nutrition, exercise and incorporate meaningful wellness activities is the key, experts say.
“I think the biggest thing is making sure the changes you are making are sustainable,” said Lisa Riggsbee, association director of community health for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte. “Where people start to get in trouble with habit change is they want to take things away — and take a lot of things away at the same time.”
Riggsbee stresses the importance of enhancing our immune systems and lifestyles by adding a healthy habit versus taking something away, especially during a time where there is already so much deprivation. It’s important to consider what this looks like for each individual. It could be adding one piece of healthy fruit to your daily diet, or it could be adding a stretch break during a long day of video conferencing.
Nutrition: Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and protein sources to build habits.
Sleep: It is one of your body’s main sources of recovery, both mentally and physically. Most people need at least seven to nine hours of sleep at night.
Activity: Try to move as much as you can throughout the day. Walk during work calls if you can, get outside for some yard work/gardening or create a regular exercise routine. Most people need to build the habit of exercise first before they worry about super detailed plans.
Stress relief: Ensure you practice healthy stress management tools. Start with exercise, meditation, yoga, 10-15 min walks and socializing.
Your needs: There are always differences with every individual, so it’s important to listen to your body. Taking these basics and customizing them to fit your lifestyle leads to success and long-term habit transformation.
“If you can focus on those and find something that works for you, you’re going to be the healthiest person you can be,” he said. “It’s simple, though not always easy. That’s why you work with a professional to help guide you on that path, and it takes out all of the guesswork.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has proven to be a great resource for up-to-date information on COVID-19.
Getting enough movement during COVID-19
With North Carolina is in Phase 2.5 of safer-at-home orders and gyms are open at 30 percent capacity, it can be quite difficult to ensure you are consistently active throughout the day. Between back-to-back calls, sitting at the computer, relaxing in front of the television or reading a book after the work day, it can be challenging to get the amount of movement that you may have been getting before COVID-19 arrived in our community.
Boosting your immune system can be done by identifying practical lifestyle changes. It’s important to remember exercise is individualized, so always listen to your body and consult a physician or healthcare professional when considering making major health and wellness changes.
Social engagement with loved ones, outdoor living and exercise are all a part of healthy living, said Carla Fallas, nurse practitioner for the Camino Clinic, a primary healthcare clinic that offers various services to the community.
“People need to find creative ways in which they can continue to accomplish this while maintaining social distance,” she said.
Fallas offered a few tips to safely boost your immune system by giving your body what it needs:
Enjoy social outdoor events with groups less than 10-15 people;
Chat in school parking lots from the inside of your vehicle trunk;
Go for a run or walk with a close friend or family member, but drive to the location in your own car.
Our suggestion: Spend a morning or evening riding around Charlotte on a Charlotte B-Cycle bike. Stations are located across town for your convenience.
Getting good nutrition during COVID-19
Nutrition is a huge part of living a healthy lifestyle. However, If you’re looking for a list of foods to eat to help boost your immune system, it’s important to remember there’s no one-size-fits all approach. The focus should be on incorporating a variety of whole foods, fruits, vegetables and water in your daily diet.
“That is a surefire way to improve your immune system if you’re not doing those things already,” dietitian Forbes said. “Variety is key. If you stay consistent with that long term and you build that as your lifestyle — and that’s just what you do — you’re going to have a better immune system. You’re going to feel better, and your energy level is going to be great.”
During the winter months, it’s going to be increasingly important to be intentional with hydration, the YMCA’s Riggsbee said. While people tend to be more mindful of water consumption during the warmer months, it becomes more difficult to remember to stay hydrated during the colder months.
Forbes provided some tips for boosting your immune system through nutrition:
Eat a variety of whole foods
Our suggestion: Order the brown bag special from Bleu Barn Bistro for a farm-to-truck meal that packs a punch full of whole foods.
Eat a variety fruits and vegetables
Our suggestion: Stop by the Cotswold, Davidson or Matthews farmers markets to find fresh, and local fruits and vegetables — or the new one in University City.
Eat foods that are rich in vitamins, then the whole food becomes your dietary supplement
Our suggestion: Order a side of broccoli waldorf from Living Kitchen for an immune-boosting dose of antioxidants, zinc, and vitamins B and C.
Forbes suggested you should be drinking at least half your bodyweight in ounces of water daily.
Taking care of mental health during COVID-19
Riggsbee’s work with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte includes encouraging healthy social interactions, which can do wonders for mental health. As a community-based organization, the social and emotional health of community members is a priority. She encourages Charlotte residents to determine what staying connected looks like for them, especially during the upcoming months. Positive interactions with people can be a good coping mechanism during an already sensitive time.
Reia Chapman, founder of the Center for Family and Maternal Wellness, agrees that mental health should be a priority for boosting our immune systems. Through her work as a licensed clinical social worker, she has learned that mental health is not disposable. The tremendous impact of COVID-19 on individuals’ psyche can make it difficult to navigate the emotional weight of this moment.
“We have a pandemic right now,” she said. “There are way more people experiencing anxious distress than ever before.”
Long-term anxiety and stress can cause your immune system to weaken, making you more susceptible to illnesses, infections and other major health problems, says the National Institute of Mental Health.
Innovation and creativity are paramount during this time because typical evidence-based practices have proven less useful. There has been a significant adjustment period for providers who are navigating the new normal.
“We are trying to provide that same level of care during a pandemic that none of us alive have ever experienced,” she said.
Putting it all into practice
Shuang Shuang Liang, creator of the blog Shuangy’s Kitchen’s Sink, uses practical adjustments to improve her own mental health. Her blog focuses on a positive mindset about food with an understanding of how food can nurture overall health.
“You have to adjust your mind because stress can play a huge role on our immune system,” she said. “I also highly recommend keeping up with your old routine. We don’t sleep in just because we work from home. We don’t stay up late.”
She and her husband use their previous commute times in the mornings to walk the dog or go for a run. The benefit of maximizing time is lasting.
“Your body is on a schedule, and your mind is on a healthy schedule as well,” she said.
Liang offered some immune-boosting tips that she incorporates into her life:
Stay connected to friends and family;
Walk around your neighborhood early in the morning when there’s few people outside;
Stand outside on the porch to get some fresh air;
Have a virtual party with the potential for far more friends and family to join;
Virtually connect with friends who you haven’t seen in years due to distance — when you’re connecting virtually, miles apart don’t matter.
Our suggestion: If you’re getting bored with your neighborhood walks, indulge in some fresh air and beautiful scenery along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, which has multiple access points throughout Charlotte.