My Turn: Health in the time of COVID

Published: 1/3/2021 10:00:27 PM

Two-year-olds do not have to be encouraged to move, to explore, to experience the world with all five senses – they do it naturally. They have what I call a “physical identity” though as they age this identity is often driven out of them by myriad forces of society including two-dimensional entertainment, ultra-processed food, and our desire to protect them by keeping them indoors.

This is just the opposite of what the primitive aspects of their brains are asking for. The main reason we even have these enormous brains is to maneuver our complex bodies. Additionally, our bodies were built to move us great distances – thus the long legs, strong gluteal muscles and the ability to dissipate heat as we go. This type of activity cannot be found in the confines of one’s home. Increasingly over the past 50 years we have more and more neglected these extraordinary machines we are given at birth, and the health of the human species has suffered for it. Despite pleads from myself and other doctors, only a small percentage of Americans have maintained their physical identity. Then, an exclamation point was placed on all the warnings – COVID-19.

In the heady days before 2020, patients invariably left my office with time-consuming tasks to do –more exercise, more stretching, more sleep, more meditation, more time with family, (sometimes less time with family!), more walks with the dog. Never have I recommended more work or more time indoors. Today our conversations are from behind masks and end with an elbow bump. There have been job changes and job losses. Those with children have them in school sometimes, but out of school most times. There is a new life dynamic that none of us have previously dealt with. Yes, we might have been used to a certain level of craziness from Washington, but on most days this was not changing our lives. Now we are all affected by the national and local news – and if we are not one day, we will be the next. However such changes, or anything for that matter that moves us further from fitness and thus our physical identity, is even more dangerous with this virus in our neighborhood.

I recently worked with a cross country runner who lost a race for the first time (I know!) and had his confidence shattered. To my thinking his opponent did him a favor – he was punched in the nose and now must recover while finding a way to get stronger and win again. COVID has punched the entire world in the nose and now we must get stronger. The plan to accomplish this does not have to come from Washington or your state capital, it can come from home. It can come from simply modeling the behavior of toddlers and the family dog. Increasingly over the past 50 years, we have been playing fast and loose with our existence as humans. We have ignored the needs of our primitive brain neurons. Our “minds” are anxious, depressed and confused because they know something is missing: our bodies are not sending it the signals and connections we developed in our days as hunter-gatherers.

One of my old professors, Rene Dubos, called himself a “despairing optimist.” I have written a book about children's fitness that is being published in the midst of a pandemic. How’s that for optimism in the face of despair? But this might actually be the perfect time. Nothing about our lives are the same, so why not (and forgive me for using this word) a reboot? And during this reboot, how about making this all about us as human animals and ignoring the computers?

What better time, going into the winter weather that tells us to hunker down, to actually get stronger, fitter, healthier? All we need to do is get outside. Take that walk in the park, in the woods, on the beach, through town – every day! Mask up and get to the playground and ballfields. And if every adult and every child and every dog got in the habit of spending more time outside because of this pandemic, it will have done us a favor. Our body-mind connection will be renewed and recharged, and we will never want to go back to those pre-virus days. We will rediscover our physical identity and the primitive brain connections that are so important for not just physical, but psychological health.

Anyone can get outside on a beautiful summer night. Only stubborn Yankees begin their renewed lease on life at the start of winter where we are assured of the cold, but very little after that.

Daniel Fulham O'Neill is an orthopaedic surgeon and sport psychologist at The Alpine Clinic, a division of Littleton Regional Healthcare in Littleton, New Hampshire and the author of "Survival of the Fit: How Physical Education Ensures Academic Achievement and a Healthy Life.”

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