The extensive time spent at home in a year like no other undoubtedly impacted people’s health and well-being.
While some saw improvements in their mental and physical health, many found themselves struggling with loneliness, anxiety and maintaining healthy habits.
The approval of COVID-19 vaccines certainly helps people see a light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic, social distancing and isolating at home.
As the distribution rolls on, however, it’s still recommended to continue following all of the safety guidelines currently in place.
Facing another winter that, for many, might look very similar to last year’s, could make following through on New Year’s health resolutions challenging.
Below, experts share their tips on how to avoid some of the common pandemic pitfalls people encountered last year, and how to increase motivation and healthy habits in 2021.
Pitfall 1: Slipping into an exercise rut
Last March, Illinoisans’ homes became the center of all their activities, including exercise. Without the ability to go to the gym, people had to get creative with how they maintained an exercise routine. Many gyms have reopened since the initial stay-at-home order expired, no doubt bringing many fitness enthusiasts back for their regular workouts. Still, many people may be choosing to stay home, opting for virtual workouts or building makeshift gyms in their homes. It can be hard to find motivation to push yourself when working out alone. To help combat that, Joshua Steckler, owner of Push Fitness in Schaumburg, suggested setting a new goal in honor of the new year.
“Find a goal that has personal meaning, so you’re emotionally invested in it,” said Steckler. “Don’t keep your goal to yourself — share it with someone who can help hold you accountable. Pair up with a friend or family member and use each other for motivation. You’ll be helping them as much as they help you.”
Steckler said it’s important to remember that improving your health takes time. Even when it feels like you’re in a rut, commit to staying consistent with your exercise and eating goals.
“Do that for three months and you’ll see measurable results,” said Steckler. “By then, spring will be here and, along with it, many more opportunities for outdoor workouts and the ability to change things up again.”
Pitfall 2: Social distancing and isolating at home taking a toll on your mental health
Humans are social creatures. By nature, we want to connect with others and can often feel isolated or trapped by spending abundant amounts of time at home away from friends and family.
In addition, many have experienced losing a loved one, a breakup or a job loss, adding to an already taxing circumstance, said Melissa Vitale, PMHNP, a mental health nurse practitioner at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH).
“These stressors compound, leaving us anxious, depressed and frustrated. We can preserve our mental health by recognizing uneasy feelings and seeking help to identify coping strategies,” said Vitale.
With the vaccine rollout in the beginning stages, Vitale said there is a bright spot in the future. However, if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression or loneliness, professionals are there to help. NCH’s mental health professionals provide talk therapy and medication management for those in need, as well as in-person and virtual visits to ease access of care. She stressed that nothing is too big or small to talk about, and that help is just around the corner.
“It is common to feel as though you are struggling during these challenging times. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional if you notice your mental health is starting to decline,” said Vitale. “It is best to obtain care as soon as possible so that you can start feeling better faster.”
Vitale said there are several things that people can do to improve their mental health over the next few months, including exercise, meditation and safely socializing. It can also be helpful to stimulate your mind with a game such as chess, checkers and word puzzles, or walking around the block to decrease stress and recharge.
“There are many free online exercise, meditation and mindfulness videos that may help guide your routine,” said Vitale.
Nicole Yarmolkevich, a behavioral health counselor at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health Arlington Heights, said practicing gratitude and mindfulness can help people improve their mental health over time. Practicing self-compassion, staying connected with others (even if it’s virtually), talking about what you’re feeling with family, friends or a counselor, and working toward acceptance of the situation can all have a positive impact.
“Work on accepting the situation as it is. We have no control over how the pandemic works, or even how people react to it or act during it,” Yarmolkevich advised. “All we have control over is ourselves. We don’t have to like it; we don’t have to agree with it. All we need to do is accept that this is current reality.”
Pitfall 3: Struggling to navigate the kitchen
Even with the abundant amount of carryout, curbside pickup and food delivery services available, it’s safe to say that many Americans became much better acquainted with their kitchens in 2020. After you’ve baked several recipes worth of sourdough bread, experimented with new dishes and cooked your family favorites 10 times over, it’s not surprising to fall into a cooking rut. By trying a few simple new tricks, however, 2021 could the year you fall in love with cooking all over again.
Pedro Leon, RDN, LDN, a dietitian at NCH Kildeer Outpatient Care Center, suggested trying a recipe swap with family and friends. Not only does this introduce your household to new cuisines, it also helps you stay connected to loved ones during this time. He said making cooking a group event by having different family members choose the recipe and help prepare it can also keep meal prep fun and double as quality family time.
Selecting a few ingredients to cook with for the week and preparing them differently each day can also go a long way in keeping your plate interesting, minimize time spent in the grocery store and help save money by allowing families to buy in bulk. Combine this with choosing meal themes for the week, such as Taco Tuesday, to really simplify your meal prep.
“Pick a handful of ingredients. Then, plan out your week using those same ingredients, but present them or cook them in different ways such as a stir-fry, salad bowl or sandwich,” said Leon. “With an established weekly menu, you now don’t have to worry about what you will make, but instead just look to change up the ingredients used from week to week.”
In addition to falling into cooking ruts, increased snacking can also be a common pandemic pitfall thanks to spending more time at home near the kitchen. To help combat the urge to snack often, follow a normal eating pattern without large gaps between meals and practicing mindful eating.
“During the pandemic, it can be challenging to keep a balanced diet following portion control, but it’s always important to be mindful of what, when and how much you eat,” said Kathy Stanislawski, registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center.
Try to keep high calorie food items out of the house and make sure you have high-quality snacks available for the times you do need something to eat.
“If you are hungry, the best thing is to make sure you have an abundant number of high-quality snacks items on hand, such as fresh fruit, veggies, complex whole grain carbohydrates, nonfat dairy products or low-fat and unsweetened dairy alternatives,” said Leon.
Pitfall 4: Avoiding necessary medical care
Especially during the early days of the pandemic, it was common to hear people say they were concerned about going to the hospital or doctor for regular appointments, screenings and necessary care. However, pushing off important medical care has the potential to have long-term effects on people’s health. Physicians are encouraging people to continue seeking the medical care they need, and stress that hospitals are safer now than at any point in the pandemic due to enhanced screening procedures, designated COVID units, isolation protocols and PPE, among other safety guidelines.
“Even though we are still in a pandemic, it is crucial for patients to continue to pursue preventive medical care, as well seek care for both new symptoms and follow up of chronic conditions,” said Michael Glickman, M.D., Internal Medicine, NCH Medical Group. “For chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, active follow up is so important to prevent complications and avoid permanent damage to the body’s systems.”
Glickman said that when it comes to preventive care, timing is everything. The earlier a condition, such as breast or colon cancer or cardiovascular disease, is detected, the higher chance of effective treatment or preventing strokes or heart attacks. That’s why it’s so important that people not wait to undergo routine screenings for these and other conditions. If new symptoms present, it’s important to schedule and appointment to see a physician as soon as possible.
“Any new symptoms should always be evaluated promptly before the condition causes injury or becomes hard to control,” said Glickman.