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Can tai chi lower your blood pressure? Is living alone bad for your mental health? The latest health news.

A short-haired woman in white sleeveless top, with back to camera, in white practices tai chi.
Tai chi is more effective than aerobic exercise at lowering blood pressure, a new study finds. (Getty Images)

Consider this your weekly checkup, of sorts, to catch up on all the health news you might have missed — like, what on earth is the viral hurke-durkle trend and what can it teach us about actually taking time to rest this weekend? Should you be drinking prebiotic soda just because a Super Bowl ad told you to? Is that fancy plastic cutting board you finally bought after being served 500 Instagram ads actually bad for you? If you're finally getting around to a belated Valentine's dinner date this weekend, is it worth ordering some oysters or other alleged aphrodisiacs? What about a "romantic" charcuterie board?

While you're getting up to speed on those health headlines, read on to find out what new studies taught us this week. From lowering blood pressure to new excuses for working out, here's what you need to know.

Tai chi can reduce blood pressure ...

Practicing tai chi may improve blood pressure even better than aerobic exercise, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open. Researchers had 342 adults with prehypertension do either aerobic exercise or tai chi for an hour, four times a week for 12 months. The tai chi group had bigger reductions in blood pressure, and almost 22% of them reached a normal blood pressure range, compared with nearly 16% in the aerobic exercise group. Also, fewer people in the tai chi group developed hypertension compared with the aerobic exercise group.

... and so can salt substitutes

Worried about how much salt you're consuming (for the record, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that healthy adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium)? As NBC News reports, a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has found that people who lowered their salt intake by using salt substitutes to flavor their food were able to ward off high blood pressure.

The new analysis looked at data from an earlier study called DECIDE-Salt and found that scaling back salt by more than a third and substituting it with the mineral supplement potassium chloride, along with other flavorings like mushroom, seaweed and lemon, may significantly decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure. High blood pressure, if untreated, poses significant health risks, including increased chances of heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, vision loss, sexual dysfunction and peripheral artery disease.

Being physically active can reduce your COVID-19 risk

Can staying active help keep COVID-19 at bay? New findings published in JAMA Network Open suggest that may be the case.

According to the study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, older adults who adhered to recommended exercise guidelines before the COVID-19 pandemic had a lower risk of both contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized due to the virus. Adults who followed U.S. and World Health Organization (WHO) physical activity guidelines (at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, as well as strength training sessions) had a 10% lower likelihood of getting infected with COVID-19 and a 27% lower likelihood of hospitalization compared with those who were inactive.

One important thing to note is that the study did not differentiate between types of exercise — movement, in general, seems to be correlated with better COVID-19 outcomes. So if leisurely walks fit better in your schedule than, say, hitting an intense HIIT class multiple times per week — you do you!

Exercise can help treat depression

A new study published in the BMJ found that exercise can be a powerful treatment tool for depression. Researchers analyzed data from 218 studies on exercise and depression and found that exercise interventions can reduce depressive symptoms, with yoga, strength training, and walking or jogging emerging as most beneficial.

Living alone can increase rates of depression

A new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that there are higher rates of depression for people living alone compared with those who share a home with others. According to the survey, 6.4% of the 16% of adults living alone reported depression, compared with 4.1% of those who live with others. Adults who claimed infrequent or no social and emotional support while living alone were nearly twice as likely to report feelings of depression (19.6%) compared with those in similar support situations but living with others (11.6%). However, for those who said that they sometimes, usually or always received emotional support, there was no significant difference in reported depression, whether they lived alone or with others.

Whether you are a solo dweller or live with a family, it’s important to build a group of people who you can rely on for social support. In order to combat loneliness, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, recently recommended reaching out to loved ones, establishing tech-free zones that can distract us from real-world connections and picking up the phone to call someone instead of texting to help build bonds with others. Other tips from experts on loneliness include practicing “social snacking,” such as chatting with a stranger at the store, and volunteering in order to build community.