An Athlete and Dietician’s Return from COVID — What He Wants You to Know

Suzie Glassman

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Erik Bustillo is not only an athlete; he’s also a Registered Dietician (RD) and co-Vice President of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). His dedication to science, health, and fitness is unquestionably strong. That’s why he felt particularly guilty for allowing himself to relax social distancing long enough to contract COVID-19 toward the end of June 2020.

Erik is the picture of health. He’s 33 years old, exercises 4–6 times a week, eats a balanced diet, and makes getting good sleep one of his top priorities. Yet, COVID knocked him on his butt for weeks. While he never had to go to the hospital, his dad (who contracted COVID through exposure to Erik) had an oxygen saturation level of 75% at one point — below 94%, and health care professionals get very alarmed. While he and his family all made a full recovery, the effects of COVID still linger nearly six months later.

He knows exactly where he was exposed. He says,

I went to a small gathering at a friend’s house. It goes without saying that no one there was symptomatic, but this was a Friday evening. The Sunday that followed (2 days later), someone at the gathering was symptomatic and alerted us Tuesday they tested positive.

Shortly thereafter, Erik had all the symptoms. As we spoke on the phone, he listed them off,

Fever
Night sweats
Slight congestion
Body aches (mostly lower back pain)
Extreme fatigue, I felt tired taking a shower
Body temperature regulation issues
Temperature of 101.5°F, not VERY high and it was also short lived, perhaps 2 days
Eventually, I lost my sense of taste & smell. This loss of taste and smell was not like when you have a common cold… it felt different. Almost as if I lost sensation in my tongue; more of a neurological manifestation as opposed to something physical (stuffed nose blocking my sense of smell and therefore blocking taste).
Loss of appetite for 1–2 days (thankfully only 1–2 days)

As an RD, Erik knows how important nutrition is to support the immune system and recover from illness. Even if you’re not moving much, the body continues to need calories to fight the virus. He focused on hydrating as much as possible and, once his appetite returned, getting protein to support his muscle mass.

He’s quick to caution this isn’t medical advice, but these are the supplements he took to support his body and immune system:

  • Vitamin D
  • Omega 3 fish oil
  • Zinc w/ copper
  • Vitamin C

Even living in sunny Florida, Erik has taken Vitamin D every day for the past eight years. Recent research found that out of 216 people with COVID-19, 80 percent didn’t have adequate vitamin D levels in their blood. The study co-author José L. Hernández, Ph.D., said in a statement,

Vitamin D treatment should be recommended in COVID-19 patients with low levels of vitamin D circulating in the blood since this approach might have beneficial effects in both the musculoskeletal and the immune system.

While his nutrition didn’t change much after contracting COVID, exercise was a whole other story. After three symptomatic days, Erik went out for a 1/2 mile walk. He found the effort exhausting and a bit demoralizing. He’s not used to feeling drained after such a small effort. It took nearly three weeks before he could resume a regular workout. Even then, training took a giant step backward.

Doctors are particularly concerned about a condition called myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). This can lead to cardiac arrest. The American Heart Association reported that in a small JAMA Cardiology study, researchers found abnormalities in the hearts of 3 in 4 people who had recently recovered from COVID-19 and “ongoing myocardial inflammation” in more than half. After testing negative, Erik did see his doctor, who tested his heart to make sure there was no damage.

Because of ongoing concerns about myocarditis, many published guidelines call for a slow approach to return to training. An article in Triathlete.com states,

The German Journal of Sports Medicine published guidelines for returning to sport after coronavirus. Including the Lancet, and JAMA Cardiology, all share a very conservative approach to return to training, ranging from two weeks of light exercise to three months off and cardiac testing. The Return To Play protocol is dependent on the severity of the symptoms — asymptomatic, mild to moderate, or requiring hospitalization.

Erik’s advice? Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. He knew someone who tried training too quickly and ended up regressing significantly. From a nutritional standpoint, he advises staying on top of your hydration. We lose fluids sweating, coughing, breathing, etc. Don’t skimp on calories. Eat your protein. Your body needs calories to get better, even if you feel like you’re not burning much by lying around.

As far as taking one of the COVID vaccines either approved or in development, Erik was skeptical at first. But with more research, he realized the world’s brightest minds stopped what they were doing and put all their vaccine knowledge toward finding a solution. It may seem rushed, but with billions in federal funding and access to all the resources (including volunteers) they needed, these vaccine manufactures were able to do what was once thought impossible.

Erik says,

Science is not a belief system. We should absolutely trust the experts and not random internet groups.

He believes athletes should take the vaccine, as well as wear a mask, social distance and wash their hands. While he’s 100% fully recovered, he’s still not as physically conditioned as he was before getting sick.

Finally, he adds,

Overcoming COVID-19 was something that helped remind me how real this virus is. I have always known it was real, but when it hits home… that strikes a bit differently. This was a reminder for me to continue to encourage individuals to take care of themselves.

Starting from a place of health and fitness will likely help you recover faster. Eat well and exercise often, he says. Good advice no matter what.

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