The COVID-19 pandemic threw many people off their routines — including their usual diet, nutrition, and sleep patterns.
COVID-19 caused more people to work from home and affected businesses like grocery stores, gyms, and restaurants. It became harder to keep up with healthy habits.
As a result, many Americans have seen undesired effects to their health.
According to a March 2021 American Psychological Association (APA) poll, 61% of Americans reported undesired weight changes during the pandemic. That included 42% of people who gained undesired weight and 19% of people who had undesired weight loss.
Also, 67% of Americans reported they were sleeping more or less than they wanted, and 23% reported they were drinking more alcohol.
“We seem to have to get people back on track,” says Felicia Kelly, CRNP, a nurse practitioner at the UPMC Outpatient Center in Montoursville. “I have seen patients, for example, with complaints of, ‘I have this weight gain that I can’t take back off,’ or ‘I just feel like I’m in a rut and can’t get out.'”
The pandemic may have made it more difficult to stay healthy. But it is possible to resume healthy routines. Here are 10 ways you can get healthy habits back into your life.
1. Keep a Food Diary
Unhealthy diets are a major factor in undesired weight gains. Foods high in saturated fats, sugars, and sodium can put a strain on your waistline.
One way to combat that? Keep track of what you’re putting in your body. Felicia says she recommends for people struggling with weight gains to keep a food diary. You can either keep a written diary or use an app like MyFitnessPal.
“There often is something we find that we can alter a bit that makes a world of difference,” Felicia says.
2. Reduce or Replace Unhealthy Foods
Once you know some of your unhealthy eating habits, you can work to fix them.
Try cutting down on foods high in saturated fats, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol. Replace them with healthier alternatives — foods high in fiber and other nutrients. If you need guidance, talk to your doctor or a dietitian.
3. Stop All That Snacking
Working from home makes it more convenient to swing by the refrigerator or pantry between meetings. And we’ve all had a late-night snack or two after an especially long day. But snacking in between meals and before you go to bed can have consequences.
Try to follow a regular eating schedule — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — and cut down on the amount of time you’re snacking.
“We need to go back to the basics, eating three smaller meals per day with no snacking, especially none before bedtime,” Felicia says. “There have been too many bad habits made during COVID and quarantine. They are very difficult to change, but it is absolutely doable. Breaking these bad habits and replacing them with more healthy options is key.”
4. Drink More Water
Low-nutrition foods can cause weight gains, but so can liquid calories. According to the American Psychological Association poll, 23% of Americans say they’re drinking more alcohol during COVID-19.
Nonalcoholic drinks can cause weight gains, too — especially high-calorie options like pop, sugary drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea.
One possible solution? Water. Drinking more water has several benefits. Replacing high-calorie drinks with water is a natural way to cut calories. Water also may help stimulate your metabolism and act as a natural appetite suppressant.
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5. Set Reachable Diet Goals
Diets that promise rapid weight loss sound promising on paper. In practice, they might not work well for you.
Instead of trying a crash diet, consider ways to reduce your calories naturally. Set attainable goals for yourself and follow them. Talk to your doctor about simple ways to cut calories.
“Sometimes if it’s unattainable, people will not stick with it,” Felicia says. “So I think slowly but surely is the way to go.”
6. Get Moving
Diet is one key way to get your health back on track. So is exercise.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular exercise can help with weight management. But that’s not the only benefit. It can reduce your risk of some health conditions, boost your brain health, strengthen your muscles and bones, improve flexibility, and even help with stress, anxiety, and depression.
How much exercise should you get? That varies by age, according to the CDC, but most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes a week. But getting back into motion is important — whether that means hitting the gym or just taking a walk around the neighborhood.
If you’ve been couch-bound for the last year, it may help to begin your exercise routine slowly and build up. Talk to your doctor for ideas.
7. Mix Up Your Exercises
When you exercise, you shouldn’t just focus on one area of your body. You should try a variety of exercises — from cardio, to strength training, to flexibility exercises. Focus on all of your muscle groups to get the full benefit of your exercise routine.
Mixing up your exercises also can help keep you interested, Felicia says.
“If you’re walking outside, walk in a different area or direction each time,” she says. “Visually, the stimulation is beneficial to compliance and sticking with the exercise goals”
8. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
What you do while you’re awake can have a major impact on your health. So can the amount of time you’re asleep.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults should get at least seven hours of sleep per night. Children need even more than that. But many people struggle to get the recommended amount.
Sleep has several benefits on health. It can help you maintain a healthy weight, get sick less often, and lower your risk of certain health conditions. It also can help ease mental health burdens.
Having trouble? Try setting a sleep schedule and creating a healthy sleep environment. Keep your room dark and comfortable, and avoid using electronic devices before bed.
9. Don’t Neglect Your Mental Health
As much as the pandemic had an effect on people’s physical health, many people also suffered from mental health burdens.
According to the APA’s Stress in America 2020 report, two-thirds of American adults reported increased stress during the pandemic. The study reported 19% of Americans said their mental health was worse in 2020 than the previous year.
“I see a lot of worsened symptoms of depression and anxiety, of people feeling sad, down, lonely, or feeling stuck in quarantine,” Felicia says. “They didn’t get to go out and see family members or friends. Obviously, we couldn’t change that in the moment, but it has set some people back.”
If you’re feeling stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, you’re not alone. Talking about your problems — with a friend or family member, or a licensed therapist — can have a significant impact.
“My first recommendation is getting them to talk to someone and really lay out what may be triggering them,” Felicia says. “And then we can work through that.”
10. Don’t Put Off Your Doctor Visits
During the height of the pandemic, many people stopped seeing their doctors.
In-person doctor visits declined 30% in 2020, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The biggest drop came in the first half of the year. Although telemedicine visits picked up some of the slack, total doctor visits still were down 15%.
Several factors played a role in decreased visits, including fear of COVID-19 and hospital safety guidelines. But the decline may have long-term effects — putting off a doctor visit could cause an existing health condition to get worse or a new one to develop.
Felicia says you should keep up with your recommended doctor visits, along with screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies. That can help you stay on top of your health.
“It’s really great to get all of that back on track so that we can make sure we’re not missing any regular screenings that patients should have,” she says.
To schedule an appointment at UPMC, call 1-800-533-8762 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or visit us online.
American Psychological Association, One Year on: Unhealthy Weight Gains, Increased Drinking Reported by Americans Coping with Pandemic Stress. Link
American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2020. Link
Cecilia Cortez, Omar Mansour, MHS, Dima M. Qato, PharmD, PhD, Randall S. Stafford, MD, PhD, G. Caleb Alexander, MD, MS, Journal of the American Medical Association, Changes in Short-Term, Long-Term, and Preventive Care Delivery in U.S. Office-Based and Telemedicine Visits During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Benefits of Physical Activity. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Get the Facts: Drinking Water and Intake. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Physical Activity for Different Groups. Link
Robert A Corney, Caroline Sunderland, Lewis J James, European Journal of Nutrition, Immediate Pre-Meal Water Ingestion Decreases Voluntary Food Intake in Lean Young Males. Link
Ameneh Madjd, Moira A Taylor, Alireza Delavari, Reza Malekzadeh, Ian A Macdonald, Hamid R Farshchi, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Effects on Weight Loss in Adults of Replacing Diet Beverages with Water During a Hypoenergetic Diet: A Randomized, 24-week Clinical Trial. Link
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Get Enough Sleep. Link
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