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When ‘Safe at Home’ Invites a Hidden Health Hazard

We’ve been hearing more about blood clots in the news. Avoid sitting too much — and take steps to avoid circulation problems.

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illustration of woman doing stretches while watching tv by nicole miles
Nicole Miles
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Sitting on the stoop, my mask fogging up my eyeglasses, I think about the fact that there are not many people on the block this nice sunny day, which is good (social distancing) but bad at the same time. My sister tells me about a friend who, prior to the pandemic, was an avid walker and got in 10,000 to 12,000 steps per day. Now, cooped up in an apartment building, she laments, “I feel sluggish and fat.” A college friend told me, “All I do is sit and Zoom. Meeting after meeting. I am working harder at home than I did when I went to the building.” Can you relate?

For some, the daily commute to work offered at least a modicum of exercise. But with many of us stuck at home for weeks, it became easy to just watch YouTube videos or TV, or to check social media for hours on end. Zooming to meetings these days has an entirely new meaning.

One way to excise those bleak cabin fever moods is to get moving. A sedentary lifestyle, health professionals tell us, can lead to poor sleep quality, depression and, it comes as no surprise, weight gain. And, as I have found, it can also lead to poor blood circulation. Reduced blood flow can affect our arteries and increase the risk of blood clots. “African Americans (both men and women) are at a much higher risk for blood clots than people of other ethnic backgrounds,” states hematologist and oncologist Adrienne A. Phillips.

Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a disease that includes deep vein thrombosis, which occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein deep inside the body, typically in the thigh or lower leg, causing pain, swelling and redness, and pulmonary embolism, which happens if the clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing chest pain and shortness of breath and in some cases damage to the lungs. Because pulmonary embolism can block the flow of blood to the lungs, it can be life-threatening, and requires immediate treatment. Further, especially among older or chronically ill people, blood clots can travel to the brain, leading to tissue damage and stroke. The incidence of VTE is 30 to 60 percent higher in African Americans than in white Americans.

“Immobilization is a well-known risk factor for blood clots, and during this time of social distancing, sheltering in place and closure of certain state parks (which imposes limits on outdoor exercise), this may promote a more sedentary lifestyle, which may result in a higher risk of blood clots developing,” Phillips adds. “In addition, as we learn more about COVID infection in hospitalized patients, the infection is associated with not only a respiratory illness, but also blood clots. In patients from China, abnormal clotting parameters and blood clots were found in those with severe infection, and we are also seeing this in hospitalized patients with severe infection in the U.S.”

“Staying at home during this pandemic can pose a significant challenge for remaining physical active,” Phillips adds. “However, it is so important to keep your exercise routine up. A sedentary lifestyle negatively affects your physical and mental health as well as your quality of life. Simple activities such as gardening, walking your pet, dancing and playing with your grandchildren will help protect your health and keep a cool head.”

Phillips recommends these measures to avoid circulation problems and deep vein thrombosis:

1. Avoid sitting still. “If you have had surgery or have been on bed rest for other reasons, try to get moving as soon as possible. If you’re sitting for a while, don’t cross your legs, which can hamper blood flow. Compression stockings may also be useful for those who are sedentary.” Compression stockings and socks, however, shouldn’t take the place of exercise. “Perform seated stretches (e.g., foot/heal flexion exercises), and get up to walk around as frequently as possible.”

2. Make lifestyle changes. “Weight loss and quitting smoking may lower the risk profile for blood clots.”

3. Exercise. “Regular exercise (as recommended by your doctor) lowers the risk of blood clots, which is especially important for people who sit a lot or travel frequently.”

Plenty of exercise classes are available online, from high-energy Zumba to restorative qigong and tai chi.

Low-intensity, non-exercise movements such as standing or walking around every 30 minutes between sitting, also helps, as well as simple housework, gardening and yard work.

To avoid the “sitting disease,” get up and move at least once an hour. When watching a TV program, get up and lift hand weights or do gentle yoga and regular stretches, to prevent muscles and joints from getting stiff. Move around while talking on the phone or FaceTiming. And if you’re joining D’Nice’s Club Quarantine, don’t just sit there, make it a boogie-down production. Get up and dance!