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A Clinician’s Thoughts about Self Care and Physical Activity during COVID

April 20, 2020 by Keri Denay, M.D., FACSM

As health care providers during the COVID-19 crisis, we are faced with challenges on many levels.  We’re on the front lines of patient care, adapting with telemedicine and being told to stay home and away from others when not at work. This instruction alone could put a damper on our overall health – mental, emotional and physical well-being. The pandemic is uncharted territory for many, but unusual circumstances often inspire creativity.

Physical activity is of paramount importance for maintaining our health, and this period of forced creativity may help spark the change we need to be more active. The current demands placed upon many of us are unprecedented. We are being asked to stretch ourselves thin – combining our many roles into one time and even place. Some of us work from home, alongside our partners and roommates doing the same, while simultaneously entertaining, caring for and teaching our children and ensuring our high-risk family, neighbors and friends are doing ok! When we are placed under such demands, physical activity is often one of the first self-care modalities to take a backseat so as not to add another item to the already lengthy to-do list. As we are instructed as passengers on a flight, we must first put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others.

As health care professionals, we tout the importance of physical activity to our patients, yet often forget that we, too, are patients. With extra requirements on our time and limited hours in our days, our own self-care drops even lower on the priority list. This is a critical period in which we need to take the opposite approach; we need to escalate our own well-being.

We often hear about the long-term health benefits of physical activity, including reduced risks of overall death and diabetes, yet we lose sight of the more acute advantages like reduced rates of anxiety and depression and improved sleep and cognition. The best part? We can still be active and adhere to social distancing recommendations. The warmer spring temperatures afford us the opportunity to get outside, spread out and reap the benefits of being active that our bodies crave and deserve! The rewards of being active are incremental and are not “all-or-nothing.” If the current conditions only allow you to take a 10-minute walk after dinner – seize the opportunity! Feel stuck as you need to care for your children during your only available window of time to be active? Don’t! Get outside and play a silly game of tag or a few rounds of hopscotch. If the entire household is able to participate, the active benefits can be shared by all to help those stay-at-home orders seem a bit more palatable.

In a time when social distancing is necessary, distancing from physical activity is not. I encourage each of us to prioritize physical activity in our schedules, to enjoy not only the long-term benefits it provides but also the immediate improvements to our overall well-being. It is an essential coping strategy today and every day. We work in careers in which we care for others, but we cannot effectively do so without caring for ourselves first.

Keri Denay, M.D., FACSM, is the medical director of Briarwood Family and Sports Medicine, as well as the Sports Medicine Fellowship director and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. She co-chairs the Exercise is Medicine® Clinical Practice Committee. Dr. Denay lives in Michigan with her husband and 3-year-old twins. She stays active running, spinning, strength training and juggling work and family life!

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