If your life these days is anything like mine, a pre-pandemic routine that included regular exercise and disciplined eating has probably given way to sedentary evenings, binge-watching TV while guzzling ice cream or mac ’n’ cheese.
Doctors say many of their patients are struggling to maintain healthy habits amid the anxiety of the pandemic. “The Quarantine 15” — pounds, that is — is a real phenomenon.
The challenge of protecting our health while battling unhealthy temptations “is a struggle everyone is dealing with,” says Dr. David Kilgore, director of the integrative medicine program at the University of California-Irvine.
Well before COVID-19, more than 40% of U.S. adults were obese, which puts them at risk for the worst outcomes. But even people accustomed to physical fitness and good nutrition are having trouble breaking bad habits they’ve developed since the pandemic.
Karen Clark, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, discovered competitive rowing later in life, and her multiple weekly workouts burned off excess calories she consumed. But the pandemic changed everything: She no longer could meet with her teammates to row and stopped working out at the YMCA.
She was cooped up at home. And that led to a more sedentary lifestyle, chained to the desk, no meetings outside the house or walks to lunch with colleagues.
“I reverted to comfort food and comfortable routines and watching an awful lot of Netflix and Amazon Prime, just like everybody else,” Clark says. “When I gained 10 pounds, and I was 25, I just cut out the beer and ice cream for a week. When you gain 12 pounds at 62, it’s a long road back.”
She started along that road in July, when she stopped buying chips, ice cream and other treats. In August, she rediscovered the rowing machine in her basement.
Even if you lack Clark’s discipline, or a rowing machine, you can regain some control over your life. A good way to start is to establish daily routines, says Dr. W. Scott Butsch, director of obesity medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. He recommends you bookend your day with physical activity, which can be as simple as a short walk in the morning and a longer one after work.
And, especially if you have kids at home studying remotely, prepare your meals at the beginning of the day or even the beginning of the week, he says.
If you haven’t exercised in a while, “Start slow, and gradually get yourself up to where you can tolerate an elevated heart rate,” says Dr. Leticia Polanco, a family medicine doctor with the South Bay Primary Medical Group near San Diego.
If your gym is closed or you don’t feel comfortable going there or you can’t get together with your regular exercise buddies, there are plenty of ways to get your body moving at home and in your neighborhood, she says.
Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Or think of your house as a cleverly disguised gym. Put on music and dance or hula-hoop, Polanco suggests. Or, if you have them, use dumbbells, or find a cable TV station or YouTube show with yoga or other workout programs.
If you search the Internet for “exercise videos,” you’ll find countless workouts for beginners and experienced fitness buffs alike.
Or try one of the seven-minute workout apps that have become popular. You can download them from Google Play or the Apple Store.
If you miss the camaraderie of exercising with others, virtual fitness groups might seem like a pale substitute, but they can provide motivation and accountability, as well as livestreamed video workouts with like-minded exercisers. One way to find such groups is to search for “virtual fitness community.”
Many gyms are also offering live digital fitness classes and physical training sessions, often promoed on their websites.
Whatever exercise you choose, remember it won’t keep you healthy unless you also watch what you eat and control your consumption of fatty and sugary foods that can raise your risk for chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension — all coronavirus risk factors.
Kim Guess, a dietitian at UC-Berkeley, recommends that people put in a healthy supply of beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds as well as frozen vegetables, tofu, tempeh and canned fish such as tuna and salmon.
“Start with something really simple,” she says. “It could even be a vegetable side dish to go with what they’re used to preparing.”
Whatever first steps you decide to take, now is a good time to start.
Staying healthy is “so important these days, more than at any other time, because we are fighting this virus, which doesn’t have a treatment,” says the Cleveland Clinic’s Butsch. “The treatment is our immune system.”