It’s never been more true than it is today: staying healthy starts in the home — and many of us are spending more time at home than ever.
The pandemic has made it even harder to do the things that some of us already had a hard time doing, like eating well and exercising regularly. But with some planning and creativity, staying active and healthy while staying at home is totally doable.
University of Chicago Medicine gastroenterologist Dr. Edwin McDonald IV says that when it comes to COVID-19, good nutrition can be a bulwark against the worst outcomes.
“We know that the COVID virus can be associated with diseases that can come from issues with nutrition, so you really want to avoid salty foods that can increase your risk of blood pressure and also sugary foods that can increase your risk of diabetes, because both of those all risk factors for having a bad outcome with the COVID virus,” he said.
Personal trainer John Lagahit says that while he’s among the Chicagoans still going outside to run, he’s changed his habits to adapt to the situation.
“I go out of my way to navigate around others beyond the 6 feet. The streets are so uncluttered right now so there’s no reason for anyone to be close to each other. My runs are definitely shorter, so I’m focusing on speedwork and keeping it nice and short,” he said.
We asked Lagahit and McDonald to answer some more questions via email about exercise and healthy eating. Those Q&As are below – in addition to some videos from Lagahit.
What can apartment dwellers do to get their heart rates up without making a lot of noise for their neighbors?
Lagahit: Bodyweight exercises are a great choice because we can do them pretty much every day and our bodies will just interpret them as locomotion and you don’t accumulate all the wear and tear you would by lifting massive amounts of weights. This is why a simple bodyweight calisthenics program is typically adopted by military personnel, athletes or just anybody who wants to maintain an optimal level of fitness without the additional fatigue and soreness often associated with weight training because of how quickly we adapt and recover. So for quarantine purposes, this is how you’ll get the most bang for your buck while not annoying your neighbors.
What amount of time or level of activity do you recommend?
Lagahit: Optimal is 5-6 days a week and I suggest to my clients that they start small and build up. I do recommend doing 10 to 15 minutes of stretching and foam rolling EVERYDAY for muscle quality and joint health; think of it as movement hygiene! But the overall point is to find something you can do consistently and build on that. The amount of time or level of exertion is going to vary greatly from individual to individual. A novice might want to start with a simple bodyweight circuit that might only take them 15 minutes to complete but if they did that every day (because once again, we recover so much faster with bodyweight exercises so we can do them more frequently) they would see great progress in no more than three weeks’ time.
Time is not as much a factor when addressing things like general strength and one’s ability to move optimally and pain free as you can typically make great improvements to these areas of your fitness while devoting as little as 15 minutes a day. For improving cardio and endurance that’s when you might want to increase the duration of your workouts to as much as 70 or even 90 minutes for more advanced athletes. But to answer the original question as succinctly as possible I’d say 4-5 days a week for anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes depending on what you are working on and your current level of fitness. One last thing to remember is to not approach this as an all or nothing proposition. If all you have time for is 10 pushups a day or if you have to break your workout into smaller segments of 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there…it all adds up! It’s not about breaking a sweat but total volume of work capacity we are trying to increase. So those 10 pushups a day is 70 pushups at the end of the week that you wouldn’t have done otherwise.
How can you stay motivated?
Lagahit: The easy answer is to choose a fitness goal and find a measurable way to chart your progress. Adaptations typically occur in as little as 3-4 weeks if you are persistent. Personally, I suggest not making it weight loss related (because how often does that work out for anyone anyway) but instead making it movement related. Focus on moving what you have as best you can and your body will eventually catch up in aesthetics and weight! I say do it all but with an emphasis on improving movement patterns first that are limiting your range of motion and/or causing pain.
Doing squats (or running, or pushups, or burpees, and the list goes on) to improve muscle tone and losing weight are great but if you are doing them improperly due to poor mechanics and muscle activation you are eventually going to experience pain and injury which will sap your motivation anyway.
So for best practices I suggest dedicating separate workouts focusing on mobility and movement, strength training either with bodyweight or heavier loads if you are capable, and then improving cardio capacity by doing those longer endurance workouts. Switching your focus and exertion level from workout to workout will also help stave off mental boredom as well as refreshing your mind/muscle connection while increasing your body awareness and general physical preparedness.
What can parents and kids do together?
Lagahit: In regards to fitness one thing that parents and children can do together is learning to move properly with strong and stable posture, proprioceptive awareness or knowing where your body is in respect to the environment and how to internally control their state of being through breathing and meditation. Yoga, dynamic stretching and posture building exercises are great for kids and parents to spend quality time breathing and communicating while in a relaxed and calm state of mind.
When it comes to more traditional exercises kids crave the same type of variety as adults so whatever you can do from a bodyweight perspective whether it’s squatting, running or jumping, is all fair game when exercising with your children. So have fun and literally try and make a game of it for you and them!
What are strategies for grocery shopping to stock a pantry and fridge during this period while conserving space, money, and time, and optimizing nutrition?
McDonald: My best advice is to think like a chef or a supermarket manager. A restaurant or market will go out of business if they aren’t organized. Could you imagine finding ground beef next to onions at a store?
I set my pantry up the same way a supermarket is set up. One shelf is my pasta and grains aisle. Another shelf is for breakfast items. I keep my canned goods in a dedicated location. I also have space dedicated to different ethnic cuisines. Knowing where everything is cuts down on time spent in the kitchen.
Organization also helps decrease food waste.
For people without a lot of space, bins or even shoe boxes can help things stay organized. For example, I have a bin just for oils and bottles of vinegar.
I also make use of old jars to store stuff. Old spaghetti sauce jars can be great for storing grains and flours.
In terms of flavor, try to buy whole spices in bulk and grind them with a coffee grinder. This will cut down on costs, make the spices last longer, and add more flavor.
What are good resources for meal ideas?
McDonald: There are so many resources available nowadays. The sheer amount of resources can overwhelm any home cook. There are two magazines with online resources I love, Fine Cooking and Cooks Illustrated. Both not only focus on recipes, but they also emphasize cooking techniques that anyone can apply to any ingredient. I also love Mark Bittman’s book, “How to Cook Everything.”
For vegetarians and vegans, the Forks Over Knives app is particularly useful. Rouxbe.com is another source for people interested in learning how to cook.
Yummly.com is an excellent repository for recipes.
How can people avoid boredom from eating a lot of the same food?
McDonald: I typically recommend that people use what’s known as batch cooking. This is where you cook a batch of different foods that you can use in different ways or dishes throughout the week. For example, I typically make a grain that I could use in various dishes like quinoa. One day I may use quinoa in a burrito. The next day I may use it in a salad. Another day, I’m a throw it in a soup. I typically batch cook beans, grains, roasted vegetables, and some sort of meat that I could put in a slow cooker. Then I use these items in soups, salads, tacos, hashes, pizzas, and toasts.
I always have onions, garlic, celery, peppers, canned tomatoes, parsley, cilantro and ginger on hand. With those ingredients, you can make almost anything.
How can people reduce food waste?
McDonald: Forty percent of the food in America gets wasted. Food waste obviously has an economic cost to the individual and society in general. With the financial losses associated with the COVID pandemic, many people don’t have enough money for food to go to waste. Even for those who aren’t focused on the financial burden of wasting food, there are environmental costs associated with food waste that you should be aware of.
Reducing food waste actually starts before you go to the grocery store. You will be less likely to waste food if you’re refrigerator, kitchen cabinets, or pantry aren’t cluttered. Most food gets wasted because we can’t see it hiding amongst food that’s probably already spoiled or expired. I try to routinely clean out old food items and keep my fridge and cabinets well organized.
At the store, you can reduce food waste by sticking to a grocery list that you create after looking through your cabinets in your refrigerator. Also, know your schedule. If you know you don’t have time to cook every night, don’t make it hard on yourself—plan ahead. I’m a busy professional—I try to cook meals on the weekend when I have more free time than during the week.
When you get home from the grocery store is another opportunity to limit food waste. Take fruits out of their containers and place them in Tupperware. Put up the groceries in their appropriate places instead of leaving them on the countertop. Put any meat that you are not going to cook the day you bought it or the following day in the freezer. Prep any vegetables that you may eat throughout the week. Also bear in mind that there are best practices for storing food. The USDA’s food keeper app is a great resource.
Ultimately, we are not perfect. Some food will still get wasted. Composting is an opportunity to salvage food waste. I use a composting service called Healthy Soil Compost. They pick up my food waste and do the composting for me.