If you have taken time off from good behavior while sheltering in place, you’re not alone. Many people are finding themselves sleeping less, indulging more, not exercising enough or smoking again.
The pandemic changed our lives. Children were no longer going to school and adults began working from home. Instead of eating healthy meals, many turned to comfort foods and snacking. Alcohol use increased as did the use of tobacco and drugs. Instead of exercising, people stayed inside and sat more. Children were allowed more screen time. Regular bedtimes disappeared.
During times of uncertainty, it’s common to experience heightened stress and anxiety and comforting to fall into bad habits. The way you cope with stress can have a positive or negative effect on your health. If you’ve been dealing with stress by acquiring bad habits, check out these tips from Omar Aiyash, MD, family medicine physician with Rush Copley Medical Group, as he addresses some common bad habits and suggests ways to replace them with good ones.
If you’ve been unproductive while at home, Dr. Aiyash suggests taking steps to manage your time better. “Don’t ignore your alarm clock,” he advises. “Don’t ditch your morning routine. Set your alarm, shower, get dressed.” He suggests dedicating workspace in your home to avoid distraction and sticking to a work schedule, starting at the same time every morning and ending at the same time every day, making sure to take a lunch break away from your desk.
Many individuals are relying on snacks and sugary foods to help them feel better. Comfort foods remind us of happy times in our lives by releasing neurotransmitters that interact with mood. Because comfort food is typically high in carbohydrates and fat, it creates a cycle of craving and crashing, slows the immune function and contributes to weight gain. “Only eat when you are hungry and stick to healthy foods and snacks,” Dr. Aiyash recommends. This will help you maintain steady energy without crashing or a negative effect on mood.
Individuals who are bored, lonely or stressed by loss of job or economic issues may be self-medicating to deal with current stress. “It’s not good to drink to relieve stress on a regular basis,” Dr. Aiyash says. It exacerbates health vulnerabilities and mental illness, interferes with medications and sleep and with the ability to make good decisions. He suggests limiting consumption to one drink per day for women and two for men and reaching out virtually for help, if needed.
Is the middle of a pandemic a good time to quit smoking? Although there is never a “good” time to quit, this is as good a time as any, Dr. Aiyash says, explaining, “There will always be stress.” Health risks associated with smoking include blood clots, cancer, high blood pressure, heart attack and lung problems plus smokers are at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 outcomes and death. If you have an urge to smoke, he suggests drinking water, going for a walk or chewing gum until the desire passes. He also recommends seeking resources to help you quit.
With gyms closed, you may have gotten out of the habit of working out. But now is a great time to jump back in – and it’s especially important as regular exercise supports healthy immune function, prevents weight gain and boosts your mood. It’s equally important to limit prolonged sedentary behavior that is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Most gyms have now reopened with added safety measures. And with the summer weather, now is a great time to take advantage of other workout opportunities. Get outside to run, walk, bike or hike. If you have home gym equipment, use it – or invest in some. Or try a virtual workout. Many free workouts are now available online including the Rush Copley Healthplex At-Home Workout Series.
It has been easy to give kids extra screen time while staying at home, especially as parents have been strained by the added responsibility of supervising children while trying to work from home. “It’s ok for right now to use more technology to reach out to friends and family,” Dr. Aiyash says. “Just set limits that work for your family situation.” For proper health and development, he reminds us that kids need time for physical activity, schoolwork, chores, sleep and social and family connections. To keep a balance, he recommends setting family time for watching movies and playing games together. Alternatives to screen time include reading, crafts, exercise and helping with meal preparation.
Sleep is critical to physical and mental health. It promotes an effective immune system, enhances mood and heightens brain function including learning, memory and decision-making. But sleep disturbance is a real consequence of the pandemic as you may have difficulty adjusting to a new schedule – or lack of one – and the stress of the pandemic may also affect the ability to sleep.
To improve sleep, Dr. Aiyash suggests sticking to steady routines for you and your kids. Set times for waking, working, meals, exercising, winding down and bed. Avoid long naps, limit consumption of alcohol and caffeine – especially later in the day – and use relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or music.
Stress management behaviors help us balance responsibilities and deal with everyday life. Choose healthy coping mechanisms that positively impact your health and turn bad habits into healthy ones.