Tips to help you break your pandemic bad habits

April 13, 2021 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
Bad habits

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, news outlets and social media were filled with people talking about all the positive ways they intended to use their time during stay at home orders—learning a new language, becoming a better cook, volunteering to call older people who were lonely and isolated, or reading more books. More than a year into the pandemic, a lot of those good intentions have fallen by the wayside and people are taking part in less healthy behaviors to cope with the sustained stress.

A poll recently released by the American Psychological Association (APA) highlighted the rise in several unhealthy coping behaviors and their affect on mental and physical wellbeing. The Stress in AmericaTM poll noted a rise in undesired weight gain or loss, increased use of alcohol, and disrupted sleeping patterns. In terms of weight gain, 42% of people who responded to the poll said they gained weight, with an average weight gain of 29 pounds. Of those who gained weight, 50% said they had gained more than 50 pounds. Another small study found that people gained more than half a pound every 10 days or about two pounds a month.

Stress has also significantly affected alcohol use and sleep. Around 23% of people who responded to the APA poll said they were consuming more alcohol to cope with stress and 67% said they were sleeping less or more than desired, potential signs of anxiety and depression. A BlueCross BlueShield poll also found bad habits on the rise during the pandemic, with a 23% increase in alcohol consumption at home, a 19% increase in smoking and 15% increase in vaping, and a 13% increase in nonmedical drug use.

How to rebuild healthy habits

It takes about two months to build (or rebuild) a habit, so be patient with yourself. These tips will help you get started.

  • Think about what you’re doing and why. The first step in breaking your unhealthy habits and building new healthier ones is to stop and think about what you’re doing and why. Are you eating comfort food because you’re stressed or using it as a way to reward yourself? Are you drinking more alcohol because you hope to numb your feelings of anxiety or sorrow or quiet an over-busy mind? Are you skipping exercise because you’re overwhelmed, facing more demands on your time from family and work, or more tired than usual?
  • Don’t try to change all your behaviors at once. The approach that’s most likely to lead to real, lasting change in your behavior is to start small. Choose 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. For example, make a point of eating at the table with family at least three evenings a week. If you’re living alone, try virtual dinner dates with family and friends via video chat to help build the new habit.
  • Be intentional with your time. Working from home has led many people to develop unhealthy habits, including regularly working extra hours because there’s no clear “end of work” like there was when you’d leave your workplace and not taking breaks to eat lunch or get some physical activity. You can combat this blurring of the lines between work and home and the stress it can cause by intentionally developing a routine. Set a regular start and stop time for work. Take a half hour away from your computer to enjoy lunch. Schedule in short breaks for some movement, whether that’s a 15 walk or some stretching.




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