Why my instincts about Covid-19 were spot on, with unintended consequences
As Covid–19 was just beginning to spread, I read what I could find about it in those, frenetic and terrifying days. At the time, back in March last year I was just wrapping up my last Africa trip. I was staying in Mafia Island and writing about the eco-lodge there. I could see a little of what was coming and what I read was, of course, terrifying.
By the time I got back to my home in Lakewood, Colorado, IQs had collectively dropped by about 100 points and there was no toilet paper in a 100-mile radius. WTF?
Yet, at some level, my instincts were telling me that I was likely going to have a good shot of survival if I caught the virus. The reason was my fitness level.
This was despite the assumptions that being old was a death sentence with this virus. I didn’t believe that, because old is relative. Our physical age isn’t always our biological age, having nothing whatsoever to with how young you and I look. That’s meaningless. What isn’t meaningless is how young we are on the inside.
I made the tactical error of writing something about this, not in a way that was intended as bragging but more so an exploration of our general chances if we’d been focusing on our fitness. One woman read that as a brag and came after me with her claws out. She accused me, as fearful people do, of being hugely insensitive and of crowing about how I was so fit I couldn’t be touched.
Well, look. Not only was that not what I said, it wasn’t what I meant. While I understood her anger (she had immune-compromised people in her family, just as I do in my circle), I also had my finger on the pulse of a greater truth, which I didn’t actually know at the time.
And I was bloody well right. There, I said it. Feels righteous. In a way.
Yesterday I read an article which shared some research about how exercise and fitness have been shown to affect Covid results. From the article:
The more physically fit someone is, the less likely they are to be hospitalized by COVID-19. More specifically, the odds of hospitalization decreased by 13% for every one MET higher of exercise capacity.A MET — or metabolic equivalent — is a measure of how much energy your body is using. By measuring how much oxygen your body uses, researchers can quantify the intensity of exercise. If you are fit, you can exercise at a higher capacity, meaning you can reach a higher MET level.
Look. You can understand this as a fine way to increase your chances of survival. Not just from Covid, but also from the variants.
And if I might point out, it might, just might, help us in fending off what comes next. For despite what the Covidiots in Miami believe about how it’s all behind us (wait for it….the fourth wave, and it ain’t salt water, dimwits), there will be more and more dangerous viruses.
While being in shape in and of itself does not mean you won’t get sick, the point here is that being in the best possible shape gives us the best possible chance of survival, if not thrival.
Again, from the article:…the group of patients who were hospitalized — 89 of the 246 — were older and had more comorbidities (such as diabetes). Age and comorbidities reduce the body’s resilience and cardiorespiratory capacity as well. What is the best approach to reversing the negative effects of aging and most comorbidities?
You guessed it — exercise. (author bolded)
You see, age might be a factor, but in and of itself it is relatively meaningless.
By being 68, doctors will automatically (and wrongly) assume certain things about the shape I’m in, which is why I got my first Moderna shot last week. I ended up with a bitch of a sore injection site, but that’s it. I am immensely grateful that Ancient Old Woman status bumped me up in line a bit, but I could have waited. Because I don’t fear this virus the way I might if I’d allowed my health to slip, stopped exercising regularly and was still obese.
There is nothing whatsoever in this article that is intended to shame or make bad those of us who have health issues visited upon us by Life, or accident, or sheer bad luck. If you read that into this piece you are not hearing me. I am speaking to what you and I can directly control, assuming we’re not laid out in bed with tubes forming highways to and from machines. There really are things you and I can and might wisely be doing.
Covid heavily targeted the weak, the sick, the obese, those with underlying health conditions. Some of those conditions are absolutely positively just crap bad luck. Those that you and I CAN affect are things like overall fitness. For plenty of big people are also perfectly fit, for fat does NOT necessarily mean out of shape despite societal messaging. Fit is FIT. A very healthy VO2 is available to big people just as it is to someone a third their size. Skinny doesn’t translate to healthy. I love banging that particular drum, for even at 205 I was fit, just big. In fact, being bigger was better protection against osteoporosis but only if I exercised regularly, which I did.
The larger issue at hand is part of what the article implies but doesn’t go into in much detail. The point here is that we can affect significant improvements which make us vastly more immune to virus like Covid, and its kin which are coming, like it or not. For example, as the earth’s polar ice melts, there are ancient bacteria being unleashed, including ancient anthrax, for which we are simply not at all prepared as modern, convenience-softened people. We are sitting ducks, very much like future humans in Disney’s Wall-E. That movie is distressingly prescient. What it didn’t address was how susceptible to illness we are making ourselves.
I keep focusing on functional fitness, which allows us to be fully in life. Here’s a perfect example of what I mean. Right now, several times a day until it warms up around here in Oregon, I slip on my rubber mud boots, take my log carrier out to the hill behind my house and load it up with firewood. By the time I’m done, that bag weighs a good 50 lbs or more. It’s often raining and I don’t want to have to repeat myself. I hike over some slippery rocks and head back down, the heavy bag in one hand. I then negotiate the mud, the rocks, the skiddy stairs back to the house, maintaining my balance, with some fifty pounds hanging off one arm and swinging as I walk.
I might point out that in every single developing country I ever traveled to, men and women well into their nineties do this. Plant rice, harvest, haul, chop, pile, lift, carry water for miles. Because they can, and kindly, they have to. As a result their bodies are very strong. They are resilient in ways we soft Westerners can’t begin to comprehend.
I’m 68. There is nobody around here to stack, sort, split, and carry for me. I train every day so that I can do this effortlessly. If I skid, I don’t tend to fall because I am doing balance work. If I do fall, I will bruise or injure, but I will heal fast, because I’m healthy. Functional fitness means all those things and a lot more. It means we have options not only as we age, but it means that when Life rears its ugly head and one day I do an ass-over-teakettle on those stairs carrying my firewood, I can get myself inside, to safety, to a phone and to help.
It’s happened, more than once, and in some of the world’s most remote places. Not just my back yard, twenty minutes from an emergency room.
If you read that as bragging you are missing the point.
It is about ensuring that you and I can handle the demands placed upon us by life. The more we avoid exercise, eat crap food, ignore symptoms and treat our amazing bodies like scrapheaps, the more we eschew walking across the room to turn on the light switch, the more likely we are going to be leveled by something unexpected. Like Covid. Like the flu. Like… a minor accident that turns into a broken leg or hip which means, all too often, we give up and die.
That article about hip fractures, by the way, lists the following:
Cognitive impairment such as dementia is a common factor that increases the risk of falling. Frailty, poor vision, the use of a combination of medications, and trip hazards in the home also increase the likelihood of falls. Osteoporosis, a disease characterised by low bone mass and degradation of bone tissue, is another significant risk factor for hip fractures.
Nearly every single one of these factors you and I have a great deal of control over: most of them begin and end with exercise. Exercise. Exercise. Exercise can help us reduce symptoms for which we take foolish medicines, which, when combined, can cause us to fall, become addled and otherwise set us up to fail as we age.
Hell, look, I regularly get leveled by something unexpected, but it’s usually something stupid and of my own making. However I also tend to bounce back up. Because I am fit. That is the whole point here.
The biggest trip hazard in my house are my own clumsy feet. Life happens, be prepared. That’s all.
Taking the best possible care of ourselves is the one thing that we can indeed affect. It’s an insurance policy. Some 30% of our conditions are utterly out of our control, such as congenital disorders or as I said, sheer bad luck. However, the other 70% we CAN affect. We CAN control.
Which, if I may point out with deeply annoying accuracy and not one whit of harangue, we all too often age badly because of bad choices. I have made plenty of them. Suffered the consequences. That’s just life.
Aging badly isn’t just life. That is a choice, because in most cases you can I could choose to eat better, not smoke, not drink or drink less, move more, socialize more, and find a purpose. All those things are well within our grasp, again in most situations, and that is why that woman was so damned mad at me.
She knew, as do we all, that much of where she is in her physical life is the result of her choices. Same as with so many of us who are compromised and suffer comorbidities like diabetes or respiratory illnesses.
My mother, once she got to her mid-70s, was on oxygen. Once a vibrant, energetic woman, she had stopped exercising entirely. She could barely shuffle across a room without getting out of breath. She didn’t have COPD or anything else. She had simply given up on her body and in return, her body had given up on her. Mercifully she passed years ago, as Covid would not have been kind.
This is not an indictment of you or anyone else. It is an invitation.
It is not about losing weight or getting skinny or looking younger or like a fitness model. NOTHING about any of those things. It is about minding the muscles and lungs and heart you were gifted with and which were given to your care, in perfect order, at birth (at least most of us). Take care of them, and your body will mount the necessary resources to fend off, heal and strengthen the considerable abilities you were born with. Abuse them, well.
Age isn’t the death sentence. Life begins with a death sentence.
What you and I do with what we are given, including time, including this magnificent form we inhabit, is up to us. Our health is the sum of our choices, and a bit of the spice of holy crap where did THAT come from thrown in, just to make things interesting.
I was right. The very best news out of that is what I was right about is well within our grasp. We can make small, different, better choices, bit by bit, day by day. Those mini-shifts, over time, pay off hugely. At some point you may well look back and wonder why you ever lived, ate, drank or thought that way. I did. I hope you do, too.
You would never intentionally put a soldier into the battlefield who wasn’t fit, who had no weapons, no food and no training. Yet that is what we are doing right now, every day, when we starve ourselves, avoid exercise, drink or smoke, overeat or otherwise mistreat the only thing we have to protect us against life’s vicissitudes.
As a military veteran, I recognize the need to be mission ready. A well-lived, healthy life that leaves a legacy is my mission. And like any good soldier, I never stop training. Because we simply don’t know what life is going to lob over the fence next.
If you’ll pardon me, then, I have go run.