Why Diet and Exercise Deserve Our Attention Right Now

Audrey Breen

Kinesiology faculty members explain why paying attention to our physical wellbeing is important right now and offer tips for maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routines.

For many, daily routines have been upended and we find ourselves working to settle in to a new reality. The increasing stress of this time is exactly why paying attention to our diet and exercise is critical, according to Art Weltman, professor in the kinesiology department at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development.

When stress levels are unusually high, physical activity and healthful eating can reduce and manage that stress and boost the immune system, according to Weltman.

“Exercise reduces stress, and incorporating regular physical activity in combination with other stress reduction techniques (such as mindfulness) can help manage the stress associated with social distancing,” Weltman said. “A number of lifestyle factors can strengthen immune function including regular exercise/physical activity, managing stress, getting adequate sleep, and a healthy diet.”

Weltman, along with kinesiology colleagues Sibylle Kranz, associate professor, dietitian nutritionist and fellow of The Obesity Society, and Luzita Vela, former assistant professor in athletic training, offer tips for how we can keep up exercise, physical activity and healthy eating.

Set A Routine

All three experts start with the suggestion of settling into a routine.

“Establish a routine,” Kranz said. “Get up at a reasonable time and follow your normal morning routine, especially getting showered and dressed, to then follow a daily pattern, including exercising, food preparation, and some outside time.”

If possible, Vela suggests proactively identifying pockets of time and even a space for exercise.

“Some people feel that they have to go to a specific space to exercise because it allows them to leave the typical duties and chores of a household,” Vela said.

This scheduled time is valuable even if it is only possible to set aside a small amount of time.

Be Active Throughout the Day

Weltman, who is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and sits on the ACSM Science Integration and Leadership Committee, shared the ACSM guidelines (pdf) for staying active during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults should engage in moderate intensity aerobic activity between 2.5 and 5 hours each week along with 2 sessions of strength training. The good news is that this activity can be done in small periods of time during the day. The guideline emphasizes that every minute of physical activity counts, no matter if it is done in 10-minute increments or thirty.

“For those who have not been physically active, consider using some time during the day to engage in physical activity,” Weltman said. “Almost everyone who is physically active reports improved quality of life and feels better both physically and mentally.”

Weltman also encourages those already committed to an exercise regimen to keep it up.

“For those who have been exercising regularly, you can maintain your current level of fitness even if you are not able to work out as frequently as you are used to,” Weltman said.

Utilize Technology

From apps to online videos, technology can be a huge help during this time.

“There are free online apps and websites with workout routines that can be done at home,” Vela said. “Many don’t require equipment; so choose a few sources that you like based on your preferred type of exercise.”

Vela also suggests taking the time to curate a few videos in advance.

For strength training, the guide Weltman shared suggests workout apps as well, specifically the 7-Minute Workout. It, too, requires no specialized equipment.

When it comes to nutrition, not only can the internet be a treasure trove of healthy recipes, it can offer ideas for how to engage children in the cooking process.

“Children love to be involved in cooking and baking, so making food in a playful manner is a great pastime, especially with little ones,” Kranz said. “From making sandwiches with faces or pizza painting (creating art using pizza crust and a variety of toppings) – a lot of these ideas can be found online.”

Make Time for Socializing

Even though it continues to be tricky to eat or work out together physically, making time to connect is important. For some of us, that connection serves as some healthy competition.

“If you are competitive or need an extra push to get motivated, then challenge a friend or family member to commit to exercise virtually together or track your minutes, steps, etc.,” Vela said.

She also encourages having fun.

“Being silly with my son has been a welcome respite for me,” Vela said. “It has helped me to reorient my perspective so that my motivation for exercise focuses on mental health benefits rather than just the physical.”

Social connection is also valuable when we consider how we eat, according to Kranz.

“Most people don’t realize the importance of having a social environment, especially while eating,” Kranz said. “Make dinner appointments and have family or friends eat ‘with you’ from remote locations can fill that void some of us feel.”

Pay Attention to Eating Patterns

While pairing connection with eating is important, Kranz does warn that family time in the kitchen can become difficult, especially if adults are experiencing high levels of stress and are struggling to be patient and tolerant. Balancing time cooking with children and without is helpful.

She also suggests paying attention to what and when we are eating, as emotional eating is a very common reaction to highly stressful situations. 

“Anxiety can trigger very unhealthy intake patterns, such as excessive alcohol consumption, cravings for high fat or high sugar foods, reduction of water intake and many more, and most importantly eating in the absence of hunger,” Kranz said.

Kranz suggests avoiding eating when you are not really feeling hungry and especially while watching TV or while in other highly distracting situations, as those foster mindless overeating.

“Also, ensure adequate water intake,” Kranz says. “For many people staying hydrated is difficult without the usual daily triggers to drink water, such as a break at work or a visit to the gym.”

As we look ahead to these next several weeks, we can all benefit from planning some time to get moving every day, fuel our bodies with healthy foods and make connections with friends and family.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated for accuracy.​

  • Related Faculty
    Headshot of Arthur L. Weltman
    Arthur L. Weltman Professor, Department of Kinesiology, Professor, Department of Medicine, Director, Exercise Physiology Core Laboratory
    Headshot of Sibylle Kranz
    Sibylle Kranz Associate Professor , Adjunct Associate Professor in Public Health Sciences