By Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA
The end of 2020 — a year none of us are likely to forget any time soon — is fast approaching, and for a while now, we’ve known that the holidays also wouldn’t be like any we’ve enjoyed in the past. We will likely celebrate Christmas creatively, and then there’s New Year’s Eve, which we will have to hunker down for too, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get creative about our New Year’s Resolutions. In fact, since these goals often have to do with health, there are many lifestyle decisions we can make and practices we can either start or tweak, that will help us feel some sense of control over our health this winter.
You hear it all the time, but a well-rounded nutrition plan is essential to your continued wellness through the winter. Along with exercise, I can’t emphasize enough how much it impacts the strength of your immune system. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, and taking it easy on fatty foods, sweets, and highly processed foods fuels your body so it can be ready to fight the standard illnesses that crop up during winter. As for beverages, it’s easy to forget to drink enough water, so be mindful of staying hydrated and drink alcohol in moderation.
Moving your body every day is also critical to keeping your immune system robust. You don’t have to be a triathlete either; a brisk walk, a dance session, and yard work like raking are all good activity options. If you dread going out into the cold, invest in some good outerwear, because lots of layers make all the difference. Getting outside each and every day cuts down on the cabin fever we are all dealing with after nine months of isolation.
Rest is another pillar of health all year-round, but especially in winter. Most adults should try to get eight hours of sleep a night, with babies and children needing significantly more. Rest is a time when your body recharges, and repeatedly shortchanging yourself in this area makes you less prepared to fend off illness.
Managing your stress effectively is another powerful tool with regard to maintaining your winter wellness. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has inserted a level of stress into all of our lives that we’ve never experienced before. In addition to stress that stems from work and family life, we also face a formidable new type of worry. Between anxiety around keeping up with the news of how the virus is playing out around the country and the world, and worrying about our loved ones and ourselves contracting the virus, our work is cut out for us.
I mention exercise again here because staying active is a potent stress reliever, as is practicing meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness techniques. Stress relief can also look like grabbing a bowl of popcorn and watching a comedy or carving out time for a video call with a friend. Simply slowing down a bit can take the pressure off, which is good for our winter health.
Most of the time, we talk about vaccinations in the context of childhood, but staying healthy in winter means keeping up with your vaccinations and knowing which you should receive, depending on your age. Remember, it’s not too late to get your flu vaccine. The CDC states that the ideal time for getting your shot is anywhere from early September through late October, but your doctor’s office and retail stores and drugstores offer them all throughout the flu season. Since the individual strain that emerges each year is different, the flu peaks at different times every year; peak times are also different depending on what area of the country you reside in.
The bottom line: Get your flu shot as soon as you can, especially this year, since being protected from the flu will help your entire community by reducing the chances that you will need to be hospitalized at a time when COVID-19 may also be straining our healthcare facilities.
If you’re older than 50, be sure also to get the shingles vaccine and get the two-dose pneumonia vaccine, especially if you have certain health conditions that could put you at greater risk for serious complications, like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Thankfully, we’ve watched the tremendous speed at which several potential COVID-19 vaccines are being developed. I have high hopes that one or more will be rolled out soon, which will provide us with sizeable doses of encouragement and hope we so badly need after this year.
I also continue to urge you to practice the 3 Ws to fight the spread of COVID-19 — wear your mask, wait six feet apart, and wash your hands frequently. December 6-12 is actually National Handwashing Awareness Week, so continue to do your part!
Finally, it may sound idealistic, but doing all you can to stay positive over this winter can go a long way in getting you through these months emotionally and physically intact. Practicing gratitude and fostering a “glass half-full” attitude is not only linked to a lower rate of depression and cardiovascular disease, you’re less likely to catch the common cold and more likely to develop better overall coping skills during challenging times.
Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.