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How to undo the bad habits you picked up during the pandemic

Since COVID-19 hit in the spring, all the extra time at home has hindered many people’s healthy habits — here’s how to get back on track.
“It's so easy to leave the computer open or eat at our desk when we’re doing everything from home,” said Rachel Goldman, “but we need those breaks and boundaries, or we can get burnt out.”
“It's so easy to leave the computer open or eat at our desk when we’re doing everything from home,” said Rachel Goldman, “but we need those breaks and boundaries, or we can get burnt out.” Getty Images

If the stress of COVID-19 and living in a global pandemic has disrupted your healthy routines, you’re not alone — according to the results from several surveys. In one survey among the general population conducted by WW, 72% of respondents reported gaining more weight during quarantine than the holidays. Another survey conducted for the protein powder company, Naked Nutrition, found that 65% of those surveyed took time off from working out while on lockdown. And a national Blue Cross Blue Shield Survey suggested that there’s been a 23% increase in alcohol consumption since the pandemic began.

Forming unhealthy habits works the same way as forming healthy ones, said Gary Foster, the chief scientific officer for WW. At some point, there’s a trigger — say, lockdown — then the behavior (let’s go with baking banana bread), and then the reward. In this example, the reward might be a sense of coziness or the delicious taste of the bread, or the payoff could be that baking is a fun activity to do with your kids. The good news is that with attention and practice, you can undo any of the less-than-stellar habits you developed during the pandemic and shift your focus to establishing healthy ones. Here’s how.

Reign in stress eating

There’s a natural tendency to turn to food to cope with added stress, but if unhealthy eating habits are left unchecked — and if they're not supplemented with other, more appropriate coping strategies — the effects of unhealthy eating habits can worsen your physical and emotional health.

The first step to undoing this habit is to understand your physical and emotional hunger. Pinpoint whether you’re turning to food for nourishment, to satisfy hunger or boost your energy, or if there’s something else (like sadness, boredom or stress) driving you to eat.

Next, identify appropriate ways to manage your emotions. If you’re bored or need an escape, food might not be the best way to handle the situation. Once you’re clear on what your emotional needs are, you can begin to develop strategies to serve them, say, by taking a bath, listening to soothing music or calling a friend to catch up.

Finally, learn how to satisfy your physical hunger. Have a meal within three hours of waking up and again every three to five hours. Fill half your plate with non-starchy veggies and the rest with a mix of protein, starchy veggies and healthful fats. When you learn how to identify, and then manage, your physical hunger, you’re in a better position to test out other coping strategies that address your emotional needs.

Don't work extra hours

Data released in March showed that on average, Americans increased their workday by 40%, tacking on an extra three hours to their remote gigs. That extra work can mean extra stress and less time to engage in healthful self-care activities like meditation, cooking and working out.

“Many people feel that they’re not working as hard if they’re working from home, so they ease up on those boundaries and work a little later or don’t take breaks,” explained Rachel Goldman, a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. Goldman said working from home shouldn’t mean you can’t disconnect, whether for a meal or a sick or personal day.

“When we were in the office, we had mental breaks automatically built into our days (commuting, grabbing a coffee or lunch, chatting with a colleague, et cetera), but being at home, we don’t have those breaks already built in, so we need to create them,” she said. It’s important to create a routine that works for you and that also includes meals and “me-time,” said Goldman. She also stressed the importance of boundaries. “It's so easy to leave the computer open or eat at our desk when we’re doing everything from home,” she said, “but we need those breaks and boundaries, or we can get burnt out.” Goldman recommended separating your work zone from your other living spaces. “Don’t eat at your work space, but don’t do other non-work activities there, either.”

Moderate how much alcohol you're drinking

Even if your drinking is within the healthy range of one glass a day for women or two for men, this new habit can veer toward unhealthy territory if it’s causing you distress or interfering with your life. Goldman suggests asking yourself whether it bothers you that you’re drinking more and whether this habit is interfering with your productivity. For example, is it causing you to miss any meetings or deadlines? She also said that if you’re questioning if your new habit is unhealthy or not, it most likely is.

“There is a very different feel to going out and meeting friends for (socially distanced) drinks, as opposed to opening a bottle of wine at home by yourself when you’re having a bad day,” Goldman said. The latter, she explained, may suggest that you’re using alcohol as a coping mechanism, which isn’t a healthy behavior. “Since our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked, I recommend first taking a pause to identify what is going on at the moment, and then asking yourself how you might handle it healthfully.” With a moment to reflect, you can determine whether you're engaging in unhealthy drinking habits during coronavirus — and the best course of action. Instead of reaching for a cocktail to de-stress, Goldman suggested deep breathing, taking a walk or calling a friend.

Stop skipping workouts

To get back on track with your fitness routine, consider your mindset, said Foster. “Self-compassion is critical for staying engaged in a wellness journey.” Instead of beating yourself up over unhealthy lifestyle habits, recognize that it’s normal for routines to change when life throws you a curveball. Don’t think of it as a setback; think of it as part of the nonlinear nature of progress. Then, set very specific and doable goals. This part is key to forming a habit, said Foster. An example: ‘I will set my alarm 15 minutes earlier on Tuesday and Thursday so I can walk before I start working.’

“Don’t get locked into the idea that there’s one way to exercise,” he said. The no pain, no gain mentality can be a big stumbling block. Scheduling a 10-minute stretch break after a Zoom call is perfectly fine. Exercise doesn’t have to leave you drenched in sweat to be beneficial — and any amount is better than no amount.