When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., and states issued stay-at-home orders, many people vowed to use their time at home positively, learning new skills, virtually volunteering, and getting into shape. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, many of those plans to better ourselves have fallen by the wayside, and people have developed less healthy habits in response to sustained stress and uncertainty.
These pandemic bad habits are having a significant effect on mental and physical wellness, according to the Stress in AmericaTM poll recently released by the American Psychological Association (APA). The poll highlighted the increase in several unhealthy coping behaviors, including a rise in the number of people reporting undesired weight gain or loss, increased use of alcohol, and disrupted sleeping patterns.
Of the adults who responded to the poll, 42% said they had gained weight. And the average weight gain was significant—29 pounds. Of the respondents who reported gaining weight, 50% said they had gained even more than the average, with a weight gain of more than 50 pounds.
Stress related to the pandemic has also significantly affected how much alcohol people are consuming. Approximately 23% of the people polled by the APA said they were drinking more alcohol to cope with stress. A RAND Corporation study found alcohol use by women was increasing even more than use by men. Data gathered in the study showed that women had increased their days of heavy drinking (four or more drinks on one occasion) 41% compared to before the start of the pandemic.
Sleep has been negatively affected by the pandemic. In the APA poll, 67% of respondents said they were sleeping less or more than desired, potential signs of anxiety and depression. A national BlueCross BlueShield survey also found several unhealthy habits on the rise during the pandemic, including:
- 23% increase in alcohol consumption at home
- 19% increase in smoking and 15% increase in vaping
- 13% increase in nonmedical drug use
The pandemic also reduced the amount of time many people spent on healthy behaviors like exercise. One international survey found that the average amount of time people spent taking part in physical activity dropped from 108 to 72 minutes per week, while time spent sitting increased from 5 to 8 hours per day.
Strategies to help you rebuild healthy habits
It usually takes about two months to build or rebuild a habit, so don’t get frustrated if your behavior change takes some time. These strategies will help you start to revamp your habits and stick with healthy behaviors for the long term.
Think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Once a behavior becomes a habit, we do it without stopping to think about what we’re doing or why. To break the habit, before you pour a glass of wine or fill a bowl with chips, consciously stop and consider what’s motivating you. Are you eating comfort food because you’re stressed or using it as a reward? Are you drinking to numb feelings of anxiety or sorrow or quiet a busy mind? Are you skipping exercise because you’re overwhelmed or facing more demands on your time from family and work?
Don’t try to reset all your behaviors at once. Start by choosing one behavior, like eating meals on the couch while watching TV or videos, and pick one small action that will move the behavior in a healthier direction. You could make a point of eating at the table at least three evenings a week, for example.
Be intentional. Working from home has led many people to develop unhealthy habits, including regularly working extra hours because there’s no clear end to the workday, and not taking breaks to eat lunch or take a walk. You can counter this blurring of the line between work and home and the stress it causes by intentionally developing and following a routine. Set a regular start and stop time for your workday. Take a half-hour away from your computer to enjoy lunch. Schedule short breaks to get moving by taking a short walk or doing some stretches.
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