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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.

Photo by Samrat Khadka on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

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.

Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

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.