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NMSU experts offer tips to keep immune system in check, avoid weight gain during COVID-19

These days, many people are staying safe at home in self-quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, taking advantage of entertainment-streaming apps and indulging in comfort foods in times of stress.


Photo of snack foods.
Two experts at New Mexico State University suggest that healthy eating, combined with physical activity, will not only keep weight gain at bay, but also help boost your body’s immunity. Pictured are some healthy snack suggestions. (NMSU photo by Adriana M. Chávez)

Two experts at New Mexico State University suggest that healthy eating, combined with physical activity, will not only keep weight gain at bay, but also help boost your body’s immunity.

“During stressful times, nourishing your body is important to fuel the body to handle needs as well as maintain your immune system,” said Karen Plawecki, food and nutrition Extension specialist for the Extension Family and Consumer Sciences department in the NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “Stressors can often poorly influence food choices.”

Joseph Berning, professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Dance in the NMSU College of Education, said in order to maintain a highly functional immune system, people must take daily care of their bodies, including getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night, daily exercise and eating healthy.

“Although it might be difficult to moderate stress in the present crisis, one can control their food and fluid intake and well as their cleanliness, sleep and exercise habits,” Berning said. “When people find themselves locked away, the temptation to eat, sit and lounge around becomes more of an attractive prospect. This combination only leads to poor health outcomes.”

So how does one stay healthy while confined in their home? Plawecki said because snacking can easily turn into grazing, especially during times of stress, aim to be proactive and plan for snacks to eat when hungry.

“Keep nutrient-rich snack foods easily available to choose readily,” Plawecki said.

She also suggested these strategies for easy access to nutrient-rich foods:
• Keep fruit that doesn’t need to be refrigerated on the counter. Wash fruit right before you eat.
• Keep fruits that need to be refrigerated stored in the front of other items in the refrigerator.
• Wash and chop or slice vegetables for snacks to be eaten within two or three days. When prepping vegetables for a meal, chop extra for snacks to save time.
• Slice cheese blocks into snack-sized portions to eat alone or with crackers.
• Boil eggs and keep them refrigerated for up to a week.
• Snacks like yogurt and nuts are quick options when hungry.
• Keep comfort foods out of easy reach.

However, Plawecki said comfort foods are allowed, as long as portion sizes are kept in mind and diners are mindful while eating, meaning distractions such as TVs and cellphones are removed while savoring your favorite meals.

Plawecki also suggests that before snacking or indulging in your favorite meal, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry.

“Physical hunger shows up in physical cues – stomach growling, lightheadedness, headaches, irritability and low energy levels,” Plawecki said. “Boredom, stress, anxiety, fear, depression and loneliness are examples of conditions mistaken for hunger.”

One way to better manage stress and anxiety is to exercise, Berning said.

“People who perform regular daily exercise live longer, experience less damaging health risks, experience fewer sick days per year, sleep better, perform better academically, decrease stress and maintain a high quality of life,” Berning said.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, people should work toward obtaining 150 minutes of moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise a week, plus two to three days a week of resistance training. But how is that possible when many state governments have mandated the closures of gyms and fitness centers?

“For cardiovascular exercise you can walk, jog, run, ride a bike or go hiking away from crowds,” Berning said. “Relative to resistance training, we have gravity. You don’t need fancy equipment. The body doesn’t know if it’s lifting a five-gallon bucket filled with water or a 40-pound barbell. The simple truth is 40 pounds is 40 pounds.”

Berning said even using your own body weight allows for endless resistance exercises. Basic examples include squats, lunges, sit-ups, jumping jacks, push-ups and stretching.

“Remember, ‘exercise is medicine’ and the best means of enhancing your immune system and fending off disease,” Berning said.

Beginning in May, the Bernalillo and Mora county Extension offices, along with NMSU Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, will present the “Stress Management – Thriving in Today’s Demanding World” online workshop series from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursdays. The series will offer tips on maintaining family resilience, stress management and healthy nutrition. For more information, visit http://rsvp.nmsu.edu/rsvp/stressmgt, or contact Mora County Extension Agent Suzanne DeVos-Cole at sdcole64@nmsu.edu.

For more health, wellness, family life, nutrition, food and food safety resources, visit https://aces.nmsu.edu/covid19.