These Easy Practices Could Significantly Reduce Your Risk of Long Covid
Make this the year for small, healthy habits.
It’s never too late to start healthy habits. Whether that's incorporating more vegetables into your lunch or moving for 20 minutes a day. No matter how long unhealthy habits have persisted, healthy habits can always bring benefits.
In a world of Covid-19, getting started on a healthy lifestyle can even alter the course of recovery. In 2022, the Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.) determined that nearly 20 percent of infected adults contracted long Covid. While long Covid has a broad definition, it’s characterized by persistent symptoms like cough, fatigue, depression, and shortness of breath that endure at least three months.
The best way to avoid long Covid is to avoid Covid, but this virus has quickly become part of our sickness lexicon. It’s worth understanding what measures can help mitigate not only Covid but this dragging consequence.
Public health researchers at Harvard investigated whether general healthy habits impact the risk of long Covid. Their findings, published in February in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, point to basic practices many learn from a young age.
The researchers initially examined lifestyle data from over 32,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. Participants reported lifestyle habits in 2015 and 2017, and then history of SARS-CoV-2 infection from April 2020 to November 2021. During the latter period, 1,981 participants reported positive Covid tests. Of that group, 44 percent developed long Covid.
The researchers evaluated lifestyle practices in participants pre-infection:
- Body mass index (BMI)
- Alcohol intake
After accounting for chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, the team found that the more healthy habits participants stuck to, the lower their risk of contracting long Covid. Those with five or six healthy habits were 49 percent less likely to develop long Covid than those who had none. Even women who contracted the condition had a 30 percent lower risk of debilitating symptoms if they practiced healthy habits pre-infection.
Statistically, the results pointed to sufficient sleep and a healthy body weight as the most influential habits.
Why little habits make a big difference for health
Once again, tried and true habits come in strong as multi-purpose hacks. This study offers even more proof that prevention is mighty medicine.
“Based on prior research, we know that people with higher levels of inflammation and immune dysregulation may be at greater risk for long Covid,” first author Siwen Wang, a postdoctoral public health research fellow at Harvard, tells Inverse. While we don’t yet know the precise biological pathways involved, Wang adds there’s an observed link between healthy bodyweight and seven to nine hours of sleep per night with lower levels of inflammation. This link may be in part why weight and sleep drive decreased risk of long Covid.
What’s more, this hack isn’t all-or-nothing. If someone practices zero of these healthy habits today, incorporating just one tomorrow can already reduce risk. Trying to get more sleep is easier to implement than giving up tobacco cold turkey.
In terms of what to aim for, the C.D.C. recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Seven-plus hours of sleep per night is considered optimal for adults, and a diet full of whole grains, vegetables, protein, and fiber with moderate alcohol intake enriches the body. While this study focuses on physical health practices, there’s also evidence that psychological duress pre-infection can increase the risk of long Covid.
According to Wang, as many as 23 million people in the United States may live with long Covid, and that number continues to grow.
“This is definitely a very debilitating condition affecting everyone's daily life for those who live with long Covid,” Wang tells Inverse.
Since Covid-19, and therefore long Covid, has only been around for three years, we still lack longitudinal data that can tell us just how the condition impacts life span and quality in the long run. However, we’ve observed that those living with long Covid have newfound health struggles that affect their quality of life and even their ability to work.
Still, living a healthy lifestyle only does so much when it comes to infectious diseases. These practices don’t make anyone completely immune from the virus and its ill effects, they only reduce the risk of contraction. “If you want to prevent getting infected, we definitely encourage you to get vaccinated,” Wang tells Inverse. The risk of contracting long Covid, even for those with impeccably healthy habits, is never zero. Staying up to date on vaccines further shrinks risk.
Getting and staying healthy can seem overwhelming, but just making the effort comes with a slew of health benefits.
Hack score out of 10 — 🥦🥕🍎😴🚴♀️🚭 (6/10 healthy habits that can lower risk of long Covid)