A father and child prepare a meal together in a kitchen.
Preparing wholesome meals as a family and connecting virtually with distant loved ones are big pieces of the wellness puzzle. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

A proper diet, regular physical activity and effective stress management may help bolster personal health amid the COVID-19 surge.

That’s the word from health experts who explored effective strategies during a recent Spectrum Health School Health Series forum.

“Certainly now more than ever, it’s important to keep our immune system strong as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country and in our communities at alarming rates,” said Leanne Mauriello, PhD, director of lifestyle medicine at Spectrum Health. “We are seeing record numbers of hospitalizations due to the virus.”

Dr. Mauriello hosted the event alongside a panel of leaders in health care and lifestyle medicine.

Among them: Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and division chief at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“There are far and away more COVID-19 cases in our community now compared to any other time during the pandemic,” Dr. Olivero said. “This concerns us, in that our current health care systems could become overwhelmed.”

On the other hand, patients are faring better now than they did in the spring, Dr. Olivero said.

This is because health care teams have learned more about preventing the spread of the disease and treating patients who fall ill with it.

Avoid gatherings

The leading advice when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19? Avoid small social gatherings.

“You may be wondering where all these COVID-19 cases are coming from,” Dr. Olivero said. “Data shows us that transmissions are coming from small social gatherings in restaurants or in homes with people from different households who have let down their guard, spending long periods of time indoors in close proximity without masks on.”

People must continue to be on guard by wearing masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, Dr. Olivero said.

Spectrum Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to stress the importance of maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others and washing hands regularly.

Food is medicine

Spectrum Health emergency physician and lifestyle medicine specialist Kristi Artz, MD, offers a mantra to help light the way to wellness: “Food is medicine.”

We can’t overlook the importance of making healthy food choices, she said.

Nutrient-dense foods on our plates are more important now than ever, as our food choices impact our bodies and our immune systems.

“What we might do in our own homes becomes critically important,” Dr. Artz said. “We need to keep our immune systems healthy and robust for when we potentially do become exposed to COVID-19 or even seasonal flu, as we start to see that in our community.”

She recommends plant-based foods, which are naturally high in nutrients and low in calories.

“These are foods that are rich in key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants that help to strengthen and support the immune system,” she said. “They are like a little army in our body protecting us and also help us recover more quickly when we do happen to become ill.”

Berries, leafy-green vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, herbs and spices are all nutrient-dense foods.

Build an efficient engine

Parents should stock their kitchens with healthy foods, said Heidi Lynema, RD, a Spectrum Health registered dietitian and bariatric counselor.


Sage advice

When it comes to building healthy habits, Spectrum Health pediatrician Anne Dudley, MD, offers wise words: “Be consistent, but with grace.”

Some helpful tips as you set out to improve your health amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Eat healthy together as a family.
  • Exercise every day.
  • Spend time outdoors.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather.
  • Get an adequate amount of sleep.
  • Check in with friends, family and others to ensure they’re in a healthy state of mind.
  • Maintain a consistent schedule.
  • Wear a mask and wash your hands often.
  • Seek help from your primary care physician as needed.

This ensures those items are readily available to kids—and it reduces their exposure to processed foods and snack foods.

“Teach kids what’s healthy,” Lynema said. “Make them part of your food preparation and keep your plates colorful. Plan menus together, play restaurant. Plan ahead and put those foods on your grocery list.”

Drinking water is also important because it flushes toxins.

Kids should think of food as fuel to help them understand the value of nutrition.

“If you put in the wrong fuel, your car won’t run as efficiently,” Lynema said. “Your ‘check engine’ light will come on if you don’t care for your engine regularly.”

Avoid holiday temptations

Avoid treating every day as a reason to celebrate with treats.

“Good food is good medicine,” said Anne Dudley, DO, an outpatient pediatrician with Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph, Michigan. “If a food is good for us, it is good for our children.”

Spectrum Health has developed healthy holiday recipes with suggestions for menus, grocery lists, main dishes and treats.

Stay active

Lessons about healthy eating and exercise aren’t just for home. They’re also critical components of the school setting.

As an elementary school physical education teacher at Mason County Central Schools, Brooks Johnson focuses on keeping children active, especially when many of them are participating in virtual learning from home.

“COVID-19 has impacted our daily routines,” Johnson said. “We need exercise to get us away from our screens.”

The entire family should play together and get outdoors whenever possible.

“Build snowmen, have snowball fights, take walks together,” Johnson said. “Exercise helps us physically and mentally. Put on some music and have a dance party together.”

Getting fitness trackers for kids can motivate them to move. Regular activity breaks during learning time can also help children maintain focus.

Keep stress in check

Exercise is not only important for memory and focus—it’s also a stress-reducer, Dr. Artz said.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We are feeling more stress now than is typical.”

Stress can cause inflammation, raise blood pressure and weaken the immune system.

Exercise can help alleviate all of that.

“Take that 10-minute walk,” Dr. Artz said. “After movement, we can work and study better. Get out in nature if you can. Even just a gentle stretch or doing a few jumping jacks.”

Yoga or meditation apps on your smartphone can help reduce stress. They can be used individually or as a family.

“Sometimes we don’t know where to begin,” Dr. Mauriello said. “Start small for quick wins so that you are not overwhelmed. Those small wins build confidence and go a long way toward building healthier habits for a lifetime. We can do this.”