Members of the public should prepare themselves for the possibility of contracting coronavirus in the same way they should for surgery, by keeping fit, quitting the cigarettes and eating healthily, experts have warned.

With worst-case suggestions that 80% of the UK population will contract COVID-19, medics at the Centre for Perioperative Care (CPOC) say we should plan as if facing an operation to fight coronavirus effectively. This includes exercising regularly, giving up smoking, looking after your mental health and having alcohol-free days, to not only reduce the chance of complications in the case of infection, but also to stay in control.

Current restrictions on our daily lives now look set to continue for months rather than weeks, with some predictions of a second wave of the virus next winter. As a newly identified virus, there is no human immunity to it, while a vaccine is yet to be created and, as a viral infection, antibiotics have no effect.

A CPOC spokesperson said: “We encourage the public to exercise and stop smoking during this time to increase their ability to cope if they contract the virus. People are more likely to be admitted to intensive care or to die if they smoke, have medical conditions or are unfit. 

“In China, they found less fit people with medical conditions were five times more likely to have a worse outcome from COVID-19 and smokers three times more likely to have this result. The public, particularly adults in a ‘vulnerable high-risk group’ should be getting some exercise, so that if they catch the virus, they are less likely to need intensive care and, we hope, also less likely to die.”

As we all know by now, the early symptoms of the illness include a fever, fatigue and a dry cough. For the majority of patients, these symptoms won’t progress to a more severe illness but, according to the World Health Organisation, 25% of confirmed cases are severe. 

The key messages from CPOC are: 

  • Stop smoking; the craving only lasts three minutes
  • Do exercise unless you are unwell with the virus. Brisk walking, cycling, electric-biking or jogging are all good activities and the over-70s are allowed out, just keep two metres from others and don’t touch anything. If indoors, try dancing or using a video programme
  • Do strengthening exercises and balancing, such as walking up and down the stairs, doing squats and practising sit-to-stand
  • Look after your nutrition. It takes 20 minutes to register that you are full, so try smaller portion sizes. Sugary snacks and carbohydrates make hunger return quicker, so plan ahead. People with obesity fare worse with lung infection
  • Look after your mental health. Sleep well, allow those you live with some space and don’t do or say the first thing that comes into your head. Remember to breathe! 
  • Have alcohol-free days. Alternate alcohol with a soft drink and try to break the spell
  • Set up good habits, such as fixing 20 minutes of aerobic exercise into a daily schedule. There are lots of videos online

One and a half million people have recently been told that they have a very high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19 due to particular conditions, such as bone marrow cancer and cystic fibrosis, or if they are undergoing immunosuppression therapy. Those at high risk have been advised to stay in their home and exercise at home.

The spokesperson added: “As well as saving serious illness and NHS capacity now, we are also asking the public to prevent the ill health they are building up in an attempt to guard against more diabetes, hip fractures, mental ill health and the need for social care when the current crisis eventually ends. This includes those patients waiting for their cancelled elective surgeries.

“Families need to support each other. People who feel they are doing something also often feel more empowered and in control, while people who exercise have better mental health. The public has been great about hand washing and social distancing.  We want people to realise that, for anyone who doesn’t have symptoms, stopping smoking and getting out to exercise two metres away from other people is an exception to isolation.”

Running events and fitness challenges up and down the country have been cancelled but, if you were planning to run a marathon in 2020, continuing with your training programme will really help. You may have to adapt your schedule to include shorter runs nearer home, but getting out three or four times a week will boost your physical shape and mental health.
You may also want to try family activities including walking, geocaching and traditional games while your children are at home, weaving in some educational activities - such as spotting signs of nature or identifying trees and birds - along the way. And don’t forget that some health insurance plans include rewards such as activity trackers to monitor daily steps, heart rate, calories burned and more.