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How to Reduce Your Risk of Long Covid According to a Harvard Study

By Camilla Moore February 28, 2023 Health and Fitness

A recent study published by Harvard Medical School in JAMA Internal Medicine has found that women who follow a healthy lifestyle have about half the risk of developing long Covid compared with women without any healthy lifestyle factors.

The study involved over 1,900 women who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 between April 2020 and November 2021 and showed that engaging in healthy lifestyle habits before infection was linked with a significantly lower risk of post-Covid complications.

Participants who reported having 5 or 6 healthy behaviors had halved their chances of developing PCC compared to those without these healthy habits.

What Is Long Covid?

Long Covid or post–Covid-19 condition (PCC) is a term used to describe the symptoms some people experience after being infected with the coronavirus. These symptoms can include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, muscle aches and pains, headache, depression and anxiety, cognitive issues (brain fog), loss of smell and taste, difficulty sleeping, and more.

PCC is defined as having Covid-19 symptoms for at least four weeks after the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection. It is estimated that the number of individuals affected with PCC can be as high as 40% and is higher among those who required hospitalization during the first few days of the initial infection.

How Can I Reduce My Risk?

The Harvard study found that certain lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of developing long Covid. These include engaging in regular physical activity (at least 30 minutes per day), adhering to a healthy diet (such as the Mediterranean diet), avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight (BMI below 25 kg/m2), and getting at least seven hours of sleep per night.

Let’s take a look at these in a little more detail.

Get the Recommended Amount of Exercise

The recommended amount of exercise is 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week. This can be measured using the “talk test.” It is considered moderate exercise if you can talk but not sing while doing the activity. Anything more complex than this is vigorous exercise. Examples include:

  1. Jogging or walking at a good clip
  2. Swimming
  3. Hiking
  4. Cycling
  5. Gardening and yardwork

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

The study used the Alternative Healthy Eating Index created by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. This measurement assigns values to high-quality foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while subtracting for lower-quality foods such as sugary and highly processed foods.

The goal is to eat the rainbow – focusing on a wide variety of vibrant, colorful foods to ensure an adequate intake of nutrients, minerals, antioxidants, and healthy fats. In addition, diets that focus on plant-based nutrition are naturally high in these foods.

Avoid Smoking

Individuals who smoke have a higher risk of PCC. Complete abstinence from smoking is best; however, the benefits begin when an individual stops smoking.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

This study used the Body Mass Index (BMI) to measure healthy weight. However, other studies have cautioned whether BMI is an accurate measure of health as it does not consider healthy lifestyles or differences in body composition. For example, higher muscle mass will skew the BMI and does not necessarily reflect an individual’s health.

Still, it was a significant measure in this study, and a higher BMI was a risk factor. What’s our suggestion? Focus on the other areas of health – proper nutrition, proper sleep, proper exercise, and proper stress management- and approach the BMI as one data point rather than the whole picture.

Sleep Is Key

The recommended sleep for adults is 7-9 hours. This study found that those who got at least seven hours of sleep per night had a lower risk of long Covid than those who slept less than seven hours.

Good quality sleep is essential for our overall health and can help reduce stress, improve concentration and memory, and boost immunity.

Avoid Alcohol

This study utilized a “moderate intake” of alcohol as a measure as defined by 5-15 g/d. For example, one serving of wine is 5 g of alcohol. The conversations around alcohol are changing. Sober-positive movements are normalizing sober living and embracing the concept that alcohol is not needed.

Limiting alcohol intake benefits cognitive function, sleep, and overall well-being.

What Does This Mean for You?

The results from this study provide valuable insight into how we can protect ourselves against developing long Covid after being infected with the coronavirus.

By following a healthy lifestyle – engaging in regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough sleep each night – women over 60 can significantly reduce their risk of experiencing these debilitating post-infection symptoms.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What have your experiences been with healthy living and Covid? Which healthy habits have you followed and how have they helped you?

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Matthew Rimsley

One serving of wine is not 5g. The alcohol by weight concentration in wine maxes out at 15%, so in a 150ml glass of wine you’ll get about 22.5ml of pure alcohol. It’s lighter than water but not much, so 22.5ml is very close to 22g. Given this careless error I wouldn’t put much faith in anything in this article.

Michael McGraw

Seems like Common Sense to keep your Immune System tuned up, regardless of the malody your up against.

The Author

Dr. Camilla Moore is a Lifestyle Medicine Chiropractor and a freelance medical and health writer. She is a self-published author and you can read her other articles at her blog, The Wellness Cabinet where she writes about exercise, fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness.

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