The COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on our bodies, and not just in the way you might think. Much has been said about the “COVID 19”—gaining 19 pounds during the pandemic—and research shows this might actually be true for many people. But it’s not just about whether our clothes fit: Being sedentary at home, often hunched over a computer, isn’t good for our orthopedic health, and the stress and grief of the past year have taken a major toll, too.
What can you do to start feeling healthier as we gradually emerge from this challenging time? UNC Wellness Center health educator Susan Chesser, MPH, shares these five tips.
1. Be kind to yourself.
First things first: Give yourself a break. Gaining weight isn’t a personal failing, and it’s only human, especially at times like these. Second, it’s normal if you’ve felt depressed or anxious, which can affect you physically. The devastation of the pandemic—death and illness, economic upheaval and changes to nearly every part of daily life, including an unprecedented restriction on social interaction—has had a profound effect on our mental health.
“There has been a decrease in activity and a change in routine. We have had to be at home isolated and had to come up with new ways of navigating the world,” Chesser says. “For a lot of people, there has been increased anxiety and uncertainty and a feeling of lack of control.”
If your mood is getting consistently worse, your worries are overwhelming you, you’re starting to have trouble with daily functioning or you’re engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking too much alcohol, help is available.
2. Get back into a consistent sleep routine.
If your sleep patterns have gone sideways during the pandemic, you’re not alone. But now is a good time to get back into a healthy sleep routine. Use your body’s natural circadian rhythm, Chesser says.
Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycles that serve as our internal clocks, regulating several biological processes, including the sleep-wake cycle.
“When we’re in a good circadian rhythm, our hormones are better in sync, and it translates over to weight management and mental health management,” Chesser says. “Regardless of what you’re eating, how you’re moving or what you’re doing, get on a good schedule that works for you.”
Some people like to go to bed early and are early risers, while others like to get up later and go to bed later. Both are fine; consistency is the key.
“Honor what your body’s natural circadian rhythm is,” Chesser says. “Notice what’s most intuitive for you, and then stay on that schedule.”
In other words, go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day—even on weekends.
“It’s really important for our mental and physical well-being,” Chesser says. “Sleep is when our brain regenerates itself—taking out the garbage and the things we don’t need—and when our hormones reset.”
3. Plan your movement.
Once you establish your sleep routine, you can plan for the other aspects of good health: activity and nutrition.
If you are out of the habit of exercising or your gym is still closed, think about how you can get or stay active. “Be intentional about your movement and incorporating exercise. It doesn’t have to be a structured exercise class. It can be walking,” Chesser says.
The important thing is to schedule it as part of your day. Start slowly so you don’t get overwhelmed. Taking a walk after dinner three times a week or swimming with your child is a good place to start.
As with exercise, dietary changes are best made gradually. Your goal can be to improve your diet in small ways, building upon your previous changes. That might mean making a goal of eating one more serving of vegetables each day or skipping the second glass of wine.
Again, it isn’t all-or-nothing. “Make sure you’re eating nourishing whole foods from all the food groups, and keep your blood sugar stable,” Chesser says. “But don’t deprive yourself.”
4. Check your posture.
If your home has become your office, you may need to adjust how you position yourself and where you work. Most importantly, don’t spend eight hours sitting in one place and one position. Change up where you’re working, what you’re sitting on and the position of your computer a few times a day.
Be sure to take breaks to stand and stretch. Moving around gets your blood flowing and gives your body a chance to recognize any discomfort that might have developed from being in that position.
5. Stay connected.
Connection and interpersonal relationships with others play a big role in our sense of well-being, Chesser says.
“When people are feeling very disconnected, the mental aspects of that impact our physical health,” Chesser says. “Look for ways to connect, such as an old-school phone call or writing a letter.”
When you connect with someone you care about in a meaningful way, you’re likely to feel better in your body and more able to make healthy changes.