The height of the Covid pandemic was brutal. Three years after this all started, leading scientists tell us what hard-learned lessons have stuck when it comes to staying healthy now—and through whatever comes next.

Risk Management Is Huge

Before the pandemic, how often did you really think about defending yourself from respiratory bugs? “Most people were shrugging off the risk. Respiratory viruses weren’t that big of a thing,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious-disease physician at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Covid forced us all to take viruses seriously on a daily basis, and it highlighted the power our personal habits—handwashing, masking, getting vaccinated, determining which indoor situations to take the risk on or not—can have over the likelihood of getting sick.

Covid also made it clear that not managing risk had consequences beyond a tough stay in the hospital or, in mild cases, losing a few sick days. One 2022 study found that a person infected with Covid was 33 times as likely to suffer from a first-time arterial blood clot during the first week of infection as someone who had never had the disease. Respiratory viruses can trigger other real medical emergencies, and these compounding factors can damage major organs and raise your risk of autoimmune conditions. Even relatively mild Covid can cramp your breathing and gym stamina for months.

Vitamin D Is a Health Hero

Prepandemic, it was easy to think of vitamin D as a bone-building nutrient found in milk, and that was kind of it. But then Covid-era research showed a higher risk of testing positive for the disease among people with a vitamin D deficiency compared with people whose levels were fine. Experts suspected that optimal amounts of the vitamin may help shield you from Covid, as it does with other respiratory illnesses.

There’s no clear conclusion on that yet, says Eric Feigl-Ding, Sc.D., chief of the Covid-risk task force at the New England Complex Systems Institute. But doctors have long known that the nutrient plays a crucial role in immune health—and about one in three American adults is not getting enough.

Vitamin D helps your immune system “across the board,” says Feigl-Ding. It rallies parts of that system to get working against microbes, and it may also reduce inflammation—a process that plays a role in a huge number of health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and even depression.

If you already have enough vitamin D, extra won’t benefit you. (A blood test can tell you your level.) To stay at a healthy amount, aim for five to 30 minutes of midday, sunscreen-free sun exposure at least twice a week (your body uses it to make its own vitamin D) and eat D-rich foods. That’s salmon, trout, and fortified cow’s or plant milk. If you don’t eat these foods or get that much direct sunlight, consider taking a supplement as an “insurance policy” in the winter, Feigl-Ding advises.

Long Covid Is Helping Us Understand Other Illnesses

Even one of the pandemic’s most devastating and puzzling legacies, long Covid, may help drive up our understanding of health. This wide swath of troubles that linger for about half of people who’ve had symptomatic Covid—everything from joint pain to brain fog—may not end up being unique to this virus. And it’s creating a surge of interest in studying seemingly similar but often dismissed conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.

We’re still learning about long Covid, but among the theories about what causes these symptoms are organ damage, chronic inflammation (including of the central nervous system), and reservoirs of virus remaining in the body, Feigl-Ding says. These are some of the same factors scientists think may be involved in CFS.

Knowing more about long Covid could shed light on these other conditions, too, explains Dr. Adalja. What’s very clear, at least, is that “these illnesses are valid,” says William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

The Basics Are a Big Deal

Health issues that develop over time, like stroke and type 2 diabetes, have been on the rise for years. About 60 percent of U. S. adults have at least one chronic illness, while four in ten have two or more. Yet until you’re diagnosed with one, the danger of chronic illness can feel far off.

Covid made it clear that people with chronic conditions were at a higher risk for severe illness, and it made people take an honest look at their health habits. Obesity, for instance, went from being “something I’ll get around to dealing with” to being a risk factor for complications from a scary new virus, says Dr. Schaffner. To clarify the synergy, Dr. Feigl-Ding tells people to “picture a glass.” Every risk factor—eating excess sugar, not exercising, not treating high blood pressure—adds water to the cup, while healthy habits decrease the water level. Covid can push the water over the rim and uh-oh.

The takeaway here is more of a reminder, really: You know what to do. You can prevent chronic illnesses by eating well, being active, avoiding tobacco, and being moderate with alcohol. Those small lifestyle habits may well save your life.

This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of Men's Health.

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