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March 11, 2022

4 tips to help you break unhealthy pandemic habits

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sep. 8, 2022.

    Amid the early days of Covid-19 restrictions, many people developed unhealthy habits to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Writing for NPR's "Shots," Allison Aubrey offers four tips that experts said can help "reset pandemic habits" and "change for the better."

    Lingering pandemic habits

    In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a string of lockdowns and restrictions that had "a profound effect on people's daily lives," Aubrey writes. As a result, alcohol sales climbed, physical activity sharply declined, and "comfort eating" led to weight gain.

    Unfortunately, many of these pandemic-era habits may be difficult to break. According to Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book "How To Change," "[w]e know when a shock arises and forces a change in our behavior for an extended period of time, there tend to be carryover effects because we're sticky in our behaviors."

    For instance, Nielsen tracked a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol during the first week of stay-at-home restrictions in March 2020.

    "Of concern is the fact that increases in drinking are linked to stress and coping," said Aaron White of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. White cited a study finding a 50% increase in the number of individuals who said they used alcohol as a coping mechanism during the early stages of the pandemic.

    Although Nielsen found that alcohol sales dipped after the spike during spring 2020, their most recent data showed that sales of beer, wine, and spirits remained higher at the start of 2022 than they were in 2019. 

    In addition, physical activity remains lower than pre-pandemic levels. When scientists at UC San Francisco (UCSF) analyzed data from the wellness smartphone app, Argus, they found that one month after stay-at-home restrictions were initiated in the spring of 2020, people took an average of 27% fewer steps each day.

    While "[t]he first decrease in activity was really the most drastic," physical activity picked up during the spring and summer of 2020 and 2021, but declined again amid fall and winter surges, said Geoff Tison, a cardiologist at UCSF.

    The was also evidence of weight gain during the pandemic, Aubrey writes. UCSF researchers analyzed data from volunteers who reported their weight throughout the early months of the pandemic and found an average 1.5 pounds of weight gain every month. The more time people spent at home, the easier it became to overeat.

    "This is an important lesson for all of us," said study author Gregory Marcus of UCSF. Notably, the combined effects of weight gain, stress, alcohol, and decreased physical activity can take a toll on heart health. 

    "Chronic disease prevention has taken a major hit nationally," said Michael Honigberg, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

    4 tips to break unhealthy pandemic habits

    So, it may be "time for a collective reboot," Aubrey writes. She shared four expert-backed tips to help people "reset pandemic habits," including:

    1. Schedule an appointment with yourself

    "I often advise my patients to calendarize their workouts or their physical activity to make sure it's something they know they're actually going to do," Marcus said.

    2. Set smaller, daily goals

    "When we have bite-sized goals, we're more likely to achieve them," said Milkman. According to Aubrey, "when we focus on the smaller, daily goal, it feels better. The goals don't seem enormous or impossible."

    3. Make it enjoyable

    Find ways to incentivize and enjoy the process. "If you don't enjoy the pursuit of the goal, you won't persist," Milkman said.

    4. Place a bet on yourself

    Research suggests people are more likely to achieve their goals when there is something at stake if they don't stick to their plan. "There's wonderful research on cigarette smokers who want to quit, and having a way to put money on the line they'll have to forfeit if they don't achieve their goals within six months improves success rates by 30%," Milkman said. (Aubrey, "Shots," NPR, 3/10)

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