Beyond the fear of getting COVID, or actually contracting it, there is much else happening right now in the atmosphere of the pandemic that is harming our health. This is important to be aware and take notice of so that we might do things that counteract and prevent these other potential things as best as we can.
I will discuss those issues below, and then offer some ideas for some possible solutions following.
Depression and Anxiety Have Increased, Which Hurts Your Mind and Your Body
Everyone’s mental health is suffering right now, in one way or another. Some are suffering more than others, but still, we are all feeling it.
People are hitting “pandemic walls” if they haven’t already (meaning, just feeling exhausted, done, and at their wits end with all of it). People feel isolated and lonely. They are mourning the loss of freedom and growing frustrated with it. People are longing to travel again, to attend weddings and dinner parties, to go to the gym or out for brunch, to just have things to look forward to once more. They are sick of wearing stifling cloth over faces, of others crossing the street to avoid being near, of never hugging one another.
How can we not be feeling this stuff? And after an entire year of it. Everyone is feeling it to different degrees.
And yet, this depression, disheartenment, and anxiety are also terrible for our health. They weaken our immune systems making us more likely to get sick. They cause weight gain and lethargy. They cause heart problems and high blood pressure, to name a few of the health problems that stress causes.
Potentially Less or Worse Quality Sleep
When you are stressed or anxious, it’s way harder to get high-quality, solid sleep. When you are exercising less, you are not likely to sleep as well (look it up. Regular exercise helps us to sleep better). When you aren’t eating well or are abusing substances, that diminishes your quality of sleep.
One bad night of sleep increases your risk of developing cancer. It ups your chances of diabetes significantly after a few nights of poor quality sleep. And it lowers your general cognitive abilities, all of which Matthew Walker talks about in his book, The Power of Sleep, on which he did his Ph.D. research.
The Atlantic also reported that coronavirus can cause insomnia and long-term changes in our nervous systems. All while sleep could also be a key to ending the pandemic, for some of the reasons I mentioned above. Sleep is one of the most essential, healing balms for your body. Period.
With the pandemic, whether sick with COVID or feeling distressed and miserable about everything, it’s no wonder our quality of sleep might be suffering, which is dangerous for keeping our immune systems strong against potential COVID, and for the course of our long-term health.
Isolation and Lack of Social Life Hurts Our Mental and Physical Health
Americans were already a lonely, isolated bunch.
Nearly half of Americans have recently reported feeling alone or left out most of the time.
1 in 4 Americans doesn’t feel like there is anyone who really understands them.
1 in 5 Americans reports they rarely or never feel close to others.
It’s been over 35 years since the NY Times Health Editor Jane Brody first reported in 1983 that loneliness was a national epidemic in the U.S., pointing to our “highly technological society” (before smartphones, mind you) as a contributing factor and main culprit.
Loneliness and a sense of isolation wreak havoc on our health, from shortening our lifespan to raising our blood pressure, contributing to weight gain, heart problems, depression, suicide, the whole gamut. According to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, loneliness puts about as much stress on the body as smoking several cigarettes a day!
COVID isn’t helping with this at all. In our already lonely, socially impoverished culture (many people are not even fully conscious of the fact that we are socially impoverished in America, since it’s all they’ve ever known, so to them, it feels normal and thus, that nothing is amiss), the pandemic has only served at pushing us further apart. And this is very, very bad for our mental health and sense of community, which was already fractured as it was.
People are relying on screens now more than ever, which, though it might be an ok substitute, for now, is not good for the long-term. We need significant in-person connections to feel fully filled in our spirits and relationships.
Sitting Around a Lot More
With the arrival of COVID, a lot of people are now working from home. This means less space to move around in. At work, we tend to walk through the office several times each day. We might head outside and walk around for a break with a colleague, or stroll somewhere for lunch. We meander down the hall to the water cooler. We walk to and from work (or to and from public transport). All of that moving about has narrow significantly with COVID.
Now, most of us walk much, much less than the amount we used to.
This is a dangerous thing in terms of our health.
The human body is meant to move frequently and throughout most of the day. Walking, even jogging, jumping, striding, standing some, with very minimal sitting. Humans originally spent much of their time doing a variety of movements (hunting, gathering, tending to children, building things, etc).
Sitting around all day in front of computers is a relatively new thing over the last few decades, and it’s terrible for our health, physical and mental.
Sitting for hours every day will do these things to your body: weaken your butt and thigh muscles, cause pain in your neck and back over time, put you at high risk for blood clots, cause murkier thinking and mental capacity, and can contribute to depression and anxiety. Some researchers are even calling sitting down “the new smoking.” As in, it’s nearly as harmful, if not equally so to your body as smoking is.
Experts say that people who sit for long periods have a 147 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Research suggests that people who spend more time sitting have a 112 percent higher risk of diabetes. Sitting for long periods can lead to varicose veins or spider veins (a smaller version of varicose veins). This is because sitting causes blood to pool in your legs.
You get the idea. It’s not a pretty picture.
Group Exercise Classes, Gym, and Sports Leagues Not Running
In theme with the previous issue, most of these things are either heavily restricted or closed altogether. Gyms, exercise classes, and team sports leagues. This piggybacks onto the first problem of sitting around all the time, making for a double whammy. Not only is this terrible for our figures and our physical health overall, but it also doesn’t help with alleviating depression or mental health symptoms. In fact, regular exercise helps with reducing these feelings.
People need regular, daily, heart-pumping exercise (the recommended amount is a minimum of 30-minutes) to keep our hearts healthy, our muscles strong, our mental health solid, and to maintain optimal overall health.
Group exercise and team sports are excellent motivators. When working out alone in your living room, there is way less motivation to follow through on the entire workout, or to put your whole heart in, or to do everything fully. It’s easier to slack off in the privacy of your own space, without others watching or relying on you. This is a great aspect of exercise classes, they motivate us to do our best with others watching. And team sports mean we rely on one another, so we have to push ourselves more.
Once we can do so reasonably safely and they are open again, head back to the gym. Sign up for your team sports once more. Resume these. Don’t let them die forever because of COVID.
In the meantime, continue pushing yourself to work out. You won’t always feel like it, but you’ll always feel awesome afterward.
Snacking More Frequently
Now, onto the other pitfall and temptation of remote work. All-day ready access to your fridge with all sorts of tasty treats and snacks lying in wait. It’s so easy to do so when not at the office with more structure in place. It can be almost mindless. Snacking, though, is terrible for your body and puts you at high risk for diabetes and unhealthy weight gain.
When you eat, sugar enters your bloodstream in the form of glucose (that’s from the food). Every time you eat something, insulin is released from your pancreas to come and deal with the food you’ve just consumed. To manage the sugar in your blood and transports the sugar to your cells.
When you snack every few hours though, not only is your body almost constantly flooded with insulin (which, over time, slowly poisons your body), but it can also lead to insulin resistance. This means that eventually, your cells no longer respond to the insulin trying to bring glucose into your cells for storage. They may malfunction from overuse (meaning, eating too often or consuming too much sugar, both can do this).
This is the pre-stage of diabetes.
Chronically high levels of insulin also make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to lose weight.
Additionally, if you’re eating every 2–3 hours, what your body is doing is burning through glycogen (stored sugar) only. What this means is, eating every 2–3 hours only results in burning off some of the previous meal and no actual fat burning. Over time, this leads to fat accumulation (aka, a tire around your middle).
The sweet spot is 5–6 hours between meals.
People Are Not Able To Visit the Doctor for Basic Care
A study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association in December reported that 43 percent of Americans have missed preventive care appointments during the pandemic. In the three months after lockdown measures were first imposed, Epic Health Research Network found that screenings for breast, colon, and cervical cancers had declined by two-thirds.
When the pandemic began, health care resources were diverted from primary and preventive care operations to fight the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing the measurable effects of skipped appointments: This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the first six months of 2020, life expectancy in the United States fell on average by one year.
What Are Some Things We Might Do To Alleviate Some of These Ails?
- Take up meditation or yoga (there are great classes right now being offered through local gyms online, you can find free stuff on YouTube, and as the weather gets warmer, workout classes will be offered outdoors)
- Practice deep breathing throughout the day
- Turn off all screens (cell phone, laptop, television), at a minimum, two hours before bedtime
- Don’t drink caffeine past, say, 1 pm. Caffeine has a half-life of five hours, which means that if you drink a cup of coffee, it takes about five hours for just half of it to disperse from your body! So if you consume espresso at 2 pm, it will remain in your system potentially until midnight or later
- Avoid sleeping pills period and avoid alcohol at night. Matthew Walker explains this in-depth in his book Why We Sleep. They both destroy your quality of sleep. Even though we assume, because they make us drowsy and help lull us to sleep initially, that they must then help us sleep well, this is inaccurate. In reality, they cause fractured, shallow sleep
- Exercise for 30 minutes every day (though not later than 7 pm because this could make it hard to fall asleep with your body all jazzed up).
- Get a stand-up desk, or make your own if you don’t want to buy one (though if you can afford one, it’s likely to be better on your neck and back than a homemade one)
- Take frequent walk breaks throughout your day
- Go on walks outside with friends as a way of socializing in-person. Risk of COVID when outdoors is next to nill. Also, talk with them on the phone or Skype regularly for the time being. Once it gets warmer, start meeting in person and doing stuff outside together. And once you’ve both been vaccinated, it’s generally safe to hang out in person together, even indoors.
- Do something nice for someone else. It’ll take you outside of yourself and your own disheartenment for a moment, and will boost your spirits. Send a friend some flowers or a small care package, just because. Bake something sweet for your neighbor. Write out a handwritten card or letter and mail it to a dear friend/other loved one. Tell a colleague that you appreciate them and they’re great because ________.
- Stop snacking. The first few days will be the toughest. Once you get into the habit, it will come naturally after a couple of weeks. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. That’s it. Don’t eat in between. Stick to those three meals only.
- As soon as you are able to get in to do so, make an appointment with your doctor for a regular physical, even if you don’t have any noticeable health issues. Same thing with the dentist, gynecologist, eye doctor, etc. If you don’t catch things in normal check-ups, this is how things can get away from us and grow untreatable.
- Do a handful of things every day that bring you joy. Whether it’s drinking your favorite kind of tea, reading a great book, playing cards with your loved one, eating something you delight in, watching a comedy show, playing with your beloved pet, getting outside and taking a walk, exercising, or watching a great movie.
Brooke (the author) has a background in health and nutrition. She completed half a degree in Health Science during her undergrad, though shifted to studying Communications. She has read upwards of 1,000 books in her life thus far, several dozen of which have been substantial, scientific health books. She is fascinated and impassioned by the topics of health, from nutrition to movement and exercise, sleep, as well as emotional and mental health. If she weren’t pursuing a career as a therapist to young women and an aspiring author (she’s completed two novels, one of which is soon to be pitched for publication), she would revel in being a health practitioner.
For some inspired further reading, check out:
We Should Get Together: The Secret for Cultivating Better Friendships by Kat Vellos
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
The Paleo Manifesto by John Durant
The Perfect Health Diet by Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching Jaminet
(This article was originally published in Change Your Mind, Change Your Life, a publication on Medium.com).