By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
It’s almost the new year and along with it comes the admittedly aspirational tradition of setting New Year’s resolutions — ones that we hopefully can stick to and not abandon after Week 3, or even Day 3, of 2022.
At the same time, we’re sliding into our third year of battling a novel coronavirus that continues to keep the world in pandemic mode.
That’s why it is more important now than ever — as the Delta variant gets squeezed out by Omicron in this country and around the globe, and as Covid-19 haltingly evolves from pandemic to endemic — to think about setting resolutions that will help us stay healthy and strong enough to see us through the coming year.
In other words, resolutions that will pandemic-proof us as much as possible.
That means we have to be proactive rather than reactive: We need to learn from the past, fix things before they break, and optimize ourselves and our ways. As the former creative director of the fashion house Lanvin, Alber Elbaz, said when I interviewed him in 2014, “You know, there is a saying in America, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ And I think that if it’s not broken, fix it before it breaks.” (Elbaz tragically succumbed to Covid-19 in April 2021.)
With that in mind, I have put together a short list of simple and universal resolutions to consider including among yours. I know I’ll be following the list.
Resolution short list
At the very top of my list is get vaccinated! The vaccines have been around for more than a year, yet currently just about 62% of the country is fully vaccinated and 33% of Americans have been boosted.
I can’t stress this enough: Being vaccinated is the best way to lower your risk of having a bad outcome if you do develop Covid-19. According to a recent Commonwealth Fund estimate, the US vaccine rollout effort has prevented 1.1 million Covid deaths, more than 10.3 million hospitalizations and nearly 36 million infections through November 2021. Still, too many preventable deaths occurred at a time when vaccines were already available.
They are very effective against the Delta variant, which is still fueling some outbreaks in parts of the United States. And while preliminary studies show certain vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection with the Omicron variant, they still help avert hospitalizations and deaths, especially with the booster. So if you haven’t received your shots yet, now is the time to do it.
Pandemic-proof your body
Besides the vaccine, there are other important ways to pandemic-proof your body. We often are motivated to stay healthy through fear of future disease: Eat right to stave off cancer or dementia in old age, exercise to avoid cardiovascular disease later on. The pandemic has taught us that being healthy could be very protective against serious disease right now, not only in the decades to come. Getting yourself in the best shape possible, within what is reasonable, prepares you to better fight off the virus should you get infected.
If you smoke, try to quit — you don’t need me to tell you it’s bad for you in so many ways; the pandemic only adds one more. If you don’t exercise, start. Physical activity is critical to good health — even something low-key like walking can work wonders. If you have a chronic health condition like liver, kidney or heart disease or diabetes — all of which have been shown to lead to worse outcomes in people battling the virus — try to manage those conditions as tightly as possible.
Another condition strongly tied to worse Covid-19 outcomes is obesity and overweight, an issue that affects almost three-quarters of Americans over the age of 20. One of the most common questions I received was about the connection between excess weight and severe Covid, so here is a look at what happens to your body.
Not surprisingly, losing weight is a popular New Year’s resolution. I won’t lie, it’s a very challenging goal that many people struggle with, and it isn’t often accomplished quickly.
So, this coming year, perhaps a different mindset will help. Instead of dieting to lose weight, resolve to eat right to boost your immune system. What does that mean? Scientists have learned that about 80% of your immunity lies with your gut microbiome — the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms that reside inside your intestines and play a key role in digestion, nutrition and immunity (among other vital activities.) Food is one of the clearest and quickest messages you send your body on a daily basis, a signal to those trillions of micro-organisms that stand at the ready.
To put it simply, what you eat for breakfast can affect your immunity by dinnertime. And, the healthiest microbiomes are the most diverse. That means you should be eating a wide variety of foods as well; the colors of the rainbow (like fruits, vegetables and fermented foods) should fill your plate. Focusing on a single superfood misses the point. The wider the variety of healthy food, the better because that will diversify your microbiome, which in turn will improve your immune system.
While developing and maintaining a healthy microbiome is not going to inoculate you from Covid-19, it’ll lower your risk of getting severe disease. (I explain this more in depth in my latest book, “World War C.”)
And let’s face it: making healthy food choices every day is more realistic than shedding 10 or 100 pounds overnight.
You might also notice other health benefits, too, like I did. A scientist friend I speak with regularly recommended I keep a detailed food journal along with a few items that I wanted to measure, like mood, creativity, willingness to work and exercise. It became really clear to me that when I would eat pickles, my metrics would always be high: I could sit down and write a paper, I could go for a run, I felt great, my mood was elevated and I had high energy.
Pickles and other fermented foods, it turns out, are a great food to feed your microbiota. Now, pickles may not work in the same way for you as they do for me, but you can experiment the same way I did to find out what gives you an edge.
Pandemic-proof your home
Next is to pandemic-proof your home. All that means is following basic, public health recommendations. Things like making sure everyone in your household is up-to-date with their immunizations and — to avoid a twindemic — their annual flu shot, too.
Other action items include keeping hands and high-touch surfaces clean, and making sure you have a supply of face masks to wear in communal indoor spaces — like elevators, supermarkets and shopping malls — especially if you live in a place with high community transmission. Social distance when possible and, if you do decide to gather indoors, make sure there is enough ventilation by opening windows or turning on a portable HEPA air purifier. One way to get an idea of the ventilation in your home is using a CO2 monitor.
Consider keeping over-the-counter rapid tests on hand. Research shows that while these antigen tests are less accurate than PCR tests for detecting an infection (especially early on and in asymptomatic people), they are particularly good at determining if someone is contagious in the moment. That means they can be used to screen large numbers of people or before a big event. Although you may have a hard time finding them right now, the tight supply should ease up.
It’s important to think about the Swiss cheese model: No single measure is going to be 100% effective in shielding you against infection in every situation, but with each additional layer, you gain more protection.
Pandemic-proof your mind
My last resolution recommendation is to pandemic-proof your mind. It will come as no surprise to learn that mental health problems went up during the last couple of years, including among kids. Take the time to address any issues you might be experiencing, to avoid adding insult to an already difficult time.
One important way to do that is by maintaining our bonds to one another. We humans are social by nature and we thrive when we are connected. Ironically, it took the pandemic to remind us it’s not just a luxury to be social, it’s a necessity — even as it stole from us the very contact we need to flourish. So take time to reach out to family, friends and colleagues to cultivate and nurture relationships. Even a brief but positive exchange with a random stranger, like a smile on the street, can have lasting effects and ripple outward.
It’s also important to get outside our own silos to connect with and understand those who think differently — be it our neighbor, a teacher, our sister-in-law or our very own parents. We evolved to cooperate with one another, otherwise we couldn’t possibly survive as a species; caring for one another is encoded in our DNA.
Covid was the third leading cause of death in 2020 in this country — the way to mitigate its impact is to start listening so we can start cooperating. Let’s fight for our future together. I will be right there alongside you. That is my resolution for 2022.
Happy New Year to you and your loved ones.
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CNN Health’s Andrea Kane contributed to this report.