Dr. Robert Zarr is a board-certified pediatrician at Unity Health Care, located in Washington, DC, where he’s practiced for nearly 19 years. He is the founder of Exercise is Medicine partner, Park Rx America, a non-profit helping doctors connect patients to nature.
Every day, I wake up to crunch the COVID-19 numbers with my son. For the last four weeks, we have been charting the number of cases and deaths in a dozen countries around the world. We are inundated with news throughout the day. News about how many people have died, the imminent economic depression and millions of recently unemployed and uninsured. Many hospital and clinic systems lack sufficient lifesaving personal protective equipment, and companies and businesses, including hospital and clinic systems, have already started to furlough staff.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), our major source of information for public health measures, recommends that we stay home, except for essentials like trips to the grocery store and pharmacy for food and medicine. The CDC also recommends the following while in public spaces: maintain a healthy distance of at least six feet from other people, avoid congregating, wash our hands frequently, avoid touching our faces and wear a face covering. We don’t know when these measures will be lifted. In the middle of a pandemic, it is understandable how we might feel a sense of dread and uncertainty.
We remember what life was like before COVID-19. We know what life is like now, but what will our lives be like post COVID-19? And, what will we have learned from COVID-19?
This pandemic has forced me to ask myself questions like: what is essential to my health and happiness? The things that I rank high up on the list are time with family, exercise, exposure to nature, connection to community and purpose. This novel coronavirus is “schooling” me not just how to survive, but to learn from this experience. It’s not that I didn’t value these things in the pre-COVID-19 era, but rather how will I prioritize them moving forward?
Take exercise and exposure to nature as examples. Why not combine the two? We know that exercise confers significant health advantages like improved cardiovascular health, strength, balance and improved immune function, to name a few. We also know that when you exercise outside surrounded by nature (“green” exercise), you add additional mental health benefits like decreased anxiety, improved focus/attention and decreased chronic stress. Even though many of us agree that the data behind these claims are quite convincing, many in the pre-COVID-19 era did not regularly move or exercise outdoors. And now, for urgent public health reasons, many of our parks have been temporarily closed, decreasing our access to shared outside space. We can still find nature around us, in our backyards, on tree-lined streets, in grassy open spaces or small community gardens.
Like yours, my life has been changed by this virus. Although many of us jump to the negative changes, what about the positive ones?
First thing every morning, I now take a vigorous walk outside with my family, maintaining a safe distance of at least six feet between us and everyone else, and don a face covering.
At the end of our workday, each member of our family goes his/her separate way, outside, to be apart from others. Although I do get some exercise by walking and intermittently stretching, my goal is to simply be in a nature-rich setting and notice what is happening around me. I may notice a conversation between two birds, or the crunching of an acorn by a squirrel, the shadows cast by the sun on the northern red oak trees or even the sound of the footsteps of runners. This daily afternoon experience brings me solace and calmness.
I have come to realize that I need this to be healthy and happy, and even more so during a pandemic. Moving forward, what if I maintained this current routine in the post-COVID-19 era? I know that we all have tremendous individual responsibilities to help others who are more vulnerable during this time of crisis. I also know that our physical and mental health is taking a beating, which is all the more reason why we might consider how to not just survive the dangers of this novel coronavirus, but to embrace these challenges and improve ourselves now and for the foreseeable future.