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Let’s get back on track, together

It is time to get back to healthy living habits and undo the effects of lockdown, writes Dr Mosima Mabunda, head of wellness at Discovery Vitality.

I refer, tongue-in-cheek, to the extra few kilograms I gained during the early stages of lockdown as my ‘Covid-spread’. It needs to go now that we are well beyond a year through the pandemic. 

Hard lockdown was not the easiest time to exercise and many of us were comfort-eating. A few other things happened, too. I was a few weeks late for my mammogram and other routine checks, which research shows was a trend worldwide.

It’s not too late to get back on track

Despite there being a dramatic reduction in care-seeking behaviour, such as for preventative screenings for chronic lifestyle diseases, this was thankfully not sustained as people are starting to take control of their health and wellbeing. The same was observed in terms of our eating and fitness patterns. We can now keep fit safely, get back into healthier eating routines, and visit our healthcare providers for those essential screenings. 

The pandemic did affect every aspect of life and changed our world fundamentally. While many have called the effects similar to a tsunami, we can create a breaker, by making small changes and thereby avoid the predicted knock-on effects on other health outcomes beyond COVID-19. 

Vitality data shows that physical activity levels in South Africa decreased by 48%, 20% and 27% during lockdown levels 5, 4 and 3, respectively. Yet, we know that lifestyle behaviours, such as physical activity, can reduce the impact of COVID-19, with our most engaged members having an 81% lower risk of death from COVID-19 than those who are not engaged. 

As lockdown levels eased and physical activity options increased, we have seen members resume physical activity. There was a 10% increase in physical activity when restrictions relaxed. And, more than a billion fitness points logged toward the end of last year. 

This means people are moving more and I am hopeful that this trend will continue.

COVID-19 impact on preventative screenings and health services 

Prevention and treatment services for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, were also disrupted since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) survey.  

The survey, which was completed by 105 countries between May and July 2020, and repeated at the start of the year, confirmed that the impact is global. This situation is of significant concern because people living with NCDs are at higher risk of severe COVID-19-related illness and death. The main finding is that health services were partially or completely disrupted for almost all of the countries. 

Local data shows people prioritised vaccines

We analysed Vitality data to gain insights into preventative screening and vaccination rates among Vitality members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was pleasing to note that there were increases in flu vaccinations last year, especially among seniors (the proportion of Vitality’s highly engaged senior members who were vaccinated in 2020 increased by 15% compared to 2019) who are at high risk of developing serious complications from flu, as well as large increases in pneumococcal booster vaccinations for seniors. 

We found that preventative screenings and assessments decreased in 2020 in line with global trends, but are starting to pick up again, thankfully.

These health checks are vital in screening for NCDs such as hypertension, which is a major cause of premature deaths worldwide. It is essential that, for instance, blood pressure is measured regularly as most people with hypertension are unaware that they have it. Similarly, screening for diabetes and raised cholesterol is essential in tackling NCDs.

NCDs kill 41 million people each year globally (70% of all deaths) thus it is crucial that people screen regularly in order to diagnose and treat these conditions early.

We still have time to quell the tide

A Vitality survey late in 2020 found that 59% of respondents who missed health checks planned to set up appointments for their annual tests.

I do hope this will be a growing trend too. From our survey, we know that while people are more uncomfortable with visiting a hospital compared to before the pandemic, the majority feel comfortable visiting a GP or pharmacy for screenings. 

We have to continue to encourage screening and address NCDs whilst encouraging people to get care safely. When going for screening assessments, remember to familiarise yourself with the health and safety protocols in place at your local healthcare provider. It is still important to remain cautious and adhere to personal protective behaviours to minimise the spread of COVID:

  • Stay home if you are feeling unwell
  • Make a booking to minimise time queuing in the waiting area
  • Schedule your screening visit during non-peak hours
  • Wear a face mask when leaving your home and throughout the check-up
  • Sanitise your hands regularly
  • Keep a physical distance of 1.5 meters from others

For our vulnerable members, we offer a Virtual Vitality Health Check-in, which is a telephonic or online consultation with a wellness specialist designed to help manage existing health risks, potentially identify new health risks and recommend ways to improve your health and wellness. 

We’ve learned more about COVID risk

As the pandemic has progressed, we have learned more about how the COVID virus spreads and what activities are associated with lower levels of risk, provided that we maintain physical distancing, masking, hand sanitising and have access to good ventilation. 

While there is no way to ensure zero COVID risk, research has shown that certain environments and everyday activities, such as shopping, may not confer additional COVID risk, provided safety protocols are complied with.

I hope Vitality members, and all South Africans, will keep this in mind as we are well into an adjusted way of life. When we are in good health, it puts us in a better position to deal with whatever may come at us in the future. DM


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