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Former Top Health Leader Touts Fitness During Pandemic

Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu says exercise will help you feel better physically and mentally

By Laura McCallum

Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu says now is not the time to sit on the couch and binge-watch Netflix. Moritsugu, 75, served as Acting Surgeon General under President George W. Bush. Now President and CEO of First Samurai Consulting, LLC, he's a consultant for the national chain Planet Fitness.

But Moritsugu, who lives in Great Falls, Va., says you don't need a health club membership to stay fit during the pandemic. I asked him about the importance of physical fitness during these dark days. 

Next Avenue: Why do you see this as such a vital need right now, as people are struggling to stay healthy and stay mentally healthy? Tell me some of the things that worry you.

Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu: From my perspective, as one of the former deputy surgeon generals and one of the former acting surgeon generals, we are always – based on science and evidence – trying to get the best information out to the American people. And fitness has a real important role to play, particularly right now. We are trying to help our communities and our nation to prevent the spread of the pandemic further, to reduce the number of people who are suffering from this infection and to reduce the number of deaths. 

There are two approaches to addressing this. One is prevention, and the prevention is action by individuals and communities, and vaccination. And as we all know, we're on the brink of having two very, very good candidates, and hopefully that will help turn the tide with regard to prevention. 

But then the other aspect of that is intervention, and that is dependent upon therapy. And unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find the appropriate therapeutic interventions. All the more reason then that personal intervention, personal attention [and] personal fitness becomes really critical to this whole approach.

"You can be active by not becoming a couch potato, by standing when you are doing work at home, rather than sitting."

I read one of your interviews where you said research shows that people have become more sedentary during the pandemic. Are people fearful of leaving their home, so they're just sitting on the couch and bingeing?

Early on, we were encouraged, don't go out, stay hunkered down and physically inhibit any exposure that you may have or exposing other people as well. Those of us who were doing the right thing found ourselves staring at the four walls.

Most fitness facilities are very much working hand in glove with the local and the national public health communities, and trying their best to remain open, while at the same time being safe for those who attend as well as safe for their workers. That can address those who either belong to a fitness facility, can access a fitness facility and depending upon what the local conditions are, are not inhibited from attending a fitness facility. 

The other aspect of it is taking the bubble that you are living in and finding things that you can do on a personal basis to remain fit. It's not necessary to do thirty minutes of cardio every single day — although thirty minutes of activity, five days a week, is really the recommended level of activity. But you don't have to break out in a sweat during those 30 minutes, especially if you're in your home. If you can, walk the neighborhood or run, or take advantage of your digital activities and exercise. 

That doesn't necessarily mean that you've got to be that active. You can be active by not becoming a couch potato, by standing when you are doing work at home, rather than sitting, by doing housework and lifting things — a chair — and using that kind of an activity for a thirty-minute period. So there are ways that you can address the issue of physical fitness without necessarily having to go to a full facility.

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The very safest is obviously in your home or outside, where the evidence suggests that if you're moving around outside, you have a very minimal risk of being exposed to the virus, but we're heading into the winter months when it's hard. 

You're absolutely right. One of the easiest ways of exercise is simple walking, as long as you're not walking in twenty-degree below [zero] weather. You can pull on a jacket and walk several blocks, and by being outdoors, you minimize your risk of having a COVID exposure by socially distancing yourself from others as you are walking.

If you are in an area where there may be others around, wearing a mask as you're walking. Some people say, well, wearing a mask when you're doing some real intensive cardio workouts is difficult. You're right. It is difficult. But if you are walking, wearing a mask is probably no more of a challenge than wearing a cap and a scarf.

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Let's focus on older adults who are struggling. Do you think for most older adults, if they're able to do more physical activity or find some way to be active, that might help with some of the mental health challenges people are facing?

I firmly believe that sitting around in the four walls of your home is probably one of the worst things that one can do for one's mental health, as well as one's spiritual health. There are things that we have got to do now because the number of those infected. The number of those dying has been spiking. The recommendations that people stay indoors, in their own bubble, as much as they can, is really necessary right now. 

"By being physically fit, you can avoid cardiovascular disease. You can avoid hypertension, you can avoid obesity, avoid diabetes."

Given that, individuals — given Zoom, given virtual communication — can engage in communications and in reaching out to each other virtually. There are other programs that I am aware of where you can even have a Zoom fitness class, where you may not necessarily physically be with another person, but you're virtually with other people. And by doing so, help your mental health and your mental well-being.

What has worked best for you during the pandemic in terms of staying active and trying not to let this affect your mental health? 

We're fortunate that we have some pieces of equipment in our home. My wife, who has multiple sclerosis, enjoys pilates. And so she has a pilates reformer in the home. I walk my neighborhood, and in the neighborhood where I am living, it's a rather hilly neighborhood. So I get my cardio uphill and I get my exercise going down. My principal activity is walking. 

I'm glad you and your wife have been able to stay safe and healthy. Any final thoughts?

Maintaining your physical fitness is important not only during this pandemic, but for when we come out of it as well — for your entire life. Maintaining physical fitness avoids falling into the chronic disease process. And particularly for those demographics that your readers are: 50 and above. 

By being physically fit, you can avoid cardiovascular disease. You can avoid hypertension, you can avoid obesity, avoid diabetes — all of which then, if you are not careful, can become increased risk factors, not only for COVID-19, but for your own personal health as well. So avoid large crowds, wear your mask, wash your hands and as much as you can, stay outside.

Photograph of Laura McCallum
Laura McCallum is the Health and Caregiving Editor for Next Avenue. She is a longtime public media journalist who worked at MPR News for nearly 27 years, most recently as Interim Director of the newsroom. Read More
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