For some people, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought changes – some welcome and some less welcome – to their routines or priorities. We asked four academics to reflect on a health habit they’ve adopted over the tumultuous months and years since COVID-19 upended people’s lives.
Walking as a source of solitude and connection
Libby Richards, Associate Professor of Nursing, Purdue University
As a busy mother of two active boys, I embrace solitude whenever I can; I even find comfort in grocery shopping. But when the pandemic hit, my errands became risky pursuits. Instead, with schools closed and family at home, I enjoyed my time with them and got creative with entertaining the kids.
But it was more difficult to find time for me. “Time Alone” went out the window. If I wanted to keep my sanity, I knew I had to find space. That’s when I put on my walking shoes and walked out.
At first, the walk was simply an escape. But as my routine became more consistent, I began to recognize and feel its benefits. As a nurse and physical activity researcher, I already understood the importance of an active lifestyle. But before the pandemic, I only focused on the physical aspects, like keeping my muscles toned and my weight stable.
I discovered that I had overlooked a crucial point benefit of physical activity: Mental Health. Instead of focusing my walks on fitness, I started walking for relief of stress and tension. And it worked. My sleep improved, I had fewer headaches and I could concentrate better.
Although my family is getting into a new routine, I continue to walk, even during phone meetings and when it’s cold outside. Sometimes I walk for errands instead of driving. I feel more connected with nature, and I appreciate the fresh air more. I was able to disconnect from everyday stressors, my mood and outlook improved, and my overall sense of well-being improved.
Make weightlifting a strong habit
Alison Phillips, Associate Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University
I decided to lift weights during the pandemic to build strength and reduce stress. Like a health psychologist who studies how to develop healthy habits, I already knew what I needed to do: repeat the behavior at the same time or place and make sure a reward was tied to the behavior. No problem, I thought.
When it comes to cardio activity, I already had a solid habit, starting years before the pandemic. Every day before dinner I did something that counts as cardio. During the pandemic, that has included getting on the elliptical at home, jogging outside, or taking a step video. I knew that one way to create a new habit is to piggyback on an existing habit, so I planned to lift weights after my cardio sessions. Four times a week, I alternated arm and leg resistance training.
But lifting weights wasn’t fun, I didn’t feel good at first, and I couldn’t tell if I was improving. I kept track of my weight training on a calendar, and for most of 2020 that was the only reward I felt – a sense of accomplishment and a check mark on a piece of paper. I still had to persuade myself to do it, and only guilt or anticipated regret would drive me.
It didn’t work out so well. Three or more days would pass without weightlifting, until I finally forced myself to do it. Eventually, after months and months of semi-regular lifting, I came to see it as something I enjoyed.
What was my reward? I became more toned and fit, of course. And it was part of who I was and something I could be proud of during the mess of the pandemic. But what ultimately made weightlifting a habit were the good physical sensations I was able to enjoy during and after weight training. If I didn’t lift weights after doing cardio, my body felt unused.
All habits, good or bad, require similar process to become habitual. Typically this involves repetition in a familiar context, associated with a reward for the behavior. The “context” of the habit can be a consistent place, time, and/or sequence of activities.
It took me a full year to develop what I would call a habit of lifting weights. Now, even when my context changes – like returning to the gym after getting vaccinated or traveling for work or vacation – my body waits and needs the muscle work, and I find a way to do some kind of resistance training.
Small delicacies, in moderation
Katherine Basbaum, Clinical Dietitian, University of Virginia
Like a registered dietitian, I have always encouraged and followed the “all foods are fine” mentality. This means that, as long as most of your meals and snacks are prepared with nutritious foods, then small indulgences are fine.
For as long as I can remember, chocolate has been one of the little indulgences I’ve allowed myself. Before the pandemic, my chocolate habit consisted of a small piece in the morning with coffee, none during the day since I was running around a hospital from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then another after dinner.
But when the pandemic hit and I started working from home a few days a week, my routines changed dramatically, including what and when I ate. I still had three mostly balanced meals on the days I worked from home. But a new habit has also emerged. My consumption of chocolate, once a morning and evening treat, has sometimes tripled. That’s because the chocolate was always there, readily available all day.
When I realized my once harmless habit was spiraling out of control, I stopped buying the big bags of chocolate. Instead, I reduced to single-serve packaging once a week. Because I didn’t go to the shops much, I had to stretch it.
In the end, I got back to my two-day routine. And even though I went back to work in person at the hospital, I didn’t go back to the big bags of chocolate. These single-serving packages always work out great for me.
Clear the mind through meditation
Jessica Bane Robert, Professor of Writing and Mindfulness, Clark University
Yet it was only in the wake of the pandemic that I found the time and mental space to engage in daily meditation. Since March 2020, at least once a day, I set aside 10 minutes for myself to calm my mind by focusing on the breath or using guided visualizations to imagine beautiful places of support or positive future outcomes. Depending on the day, I did my “sitting”, as the meditators call them, at the edge of the pond in front of my house, when I woke up or when I went to bed.
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Since then my blood pressure has dropped – but more importantly, I experienced greater peace. I have less attachment to negative thoughts and emotions while still being able to really dwell on the positive. In addition, meditation improved my concentration and my “working memory”. Research suggests that benefits can be obtained with as little as 10 minutes a day spent in meditation.
Taking time to meditate may seem selfish to some, but research shows it can reduce bias and prejudice towards others as well as decreasing one’s own tendency to find the negative in situations, called negativity bias. To foster gentleness toward self and compassion toward others, my students and I practice loving-kindness – a type of meditation practice popularized by author Sharon Salzberg.
Many apps are available to guide you while inspiring you to meditate and provide the community – two things that make a new habit take root. Insight Timer – my favorite – has a free version, but you can try Headspace, Waking Up, Ten Percent Happier and Calm, all apps that offer free trials. If you learn a new practice best by reading, dive into the “True Happiness“or the Jon Kabat-Zinn classic”Wherever you go, there you are.”
What I love about my new habit is that meditation can be done anytime, anywhere. All you need is your breath, and with it you can change the quality of your thoughts and your day.