There is no way around it. During the isolating environment of the past year, we have all developed some bad habits. They have developed out of necessity — like relaxed at-home eating habits while sitting on the couch and binge-watching TV, or sitting in bed with one hand scrolling your phone and the other “zombie eating.”
Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says such practices fall into what she calls “quarantine permissiveness.” As we now start to work our way toward the “new normal” that lies somewhere up ahead, Albers tells the NYC Daily Post that we have reached a point where we should begin to consider a return to the dining table.
Albers explains that a nicely set table, with napkins and real plates and utensils, can reframe mealtime as a special part of the day — a time for folks to sit down and eat while giving mealtime their full attention. “Eating should be an experience and something you enjoy,” she says.
She suggests sitting as you would in a restaurant, with your feet on the floor and your back against the chair. This seems worth a try, but with a word of warning: As you scoot your chair snugly into place against the table for maybe the first time in months, you may feel less distance between your body and the table. Could it be due to an expanded waistline and a year of eating more and exercising less?
As shown in a study published March 22 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, between February and June 2020, the average American had packed on an additional 7 pounds. As explained in a recent Time magazine report, shelter-in-place orders in mid-March and early-April of last year got researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, wondering about what the sudden shift to a more sedentary lifestyle would do to eating habits and body mass.
Prior to the pandemic, they had begun a program known as the Heart eHealth Study, in which 250,000 volunteers share their blood pressure, electrocardiograms, weight and more. To now test if the sudden shift to a more sedentary lifestyle and a change in eating habits might be affecting body mass, the team selected a representative sample group from their existing pool of heart health subjects. It consisted of 269 people from 37 states, with a median age of 51.9 years. The group was close to evenly divided between men and women.
What they found was that over the course of four months, from Feb. 1, 2020, before pandemic-related social restrictions, through June 1, 2020, the subjects gained an average of 0.59 pounds every 10 days.
As Dr. Gregory Marcus, a cardiologist from University of California, San Francisco, and a co-author of the study explains it, what was especially troubling to the researchers was that many of the subjects included in this study had been losing weight before the four-month period began. “This means that their healthy behavior was not just interrupted; it was actually reversed,” he tells Time magazine editor at large Jeffrey Kluger.
Also to be considered is the fact that the volunteer participants in the study, given their level of commitment, may be more health-conscious than much of the rest of the population. “It might be that the general population has actually experienced more weight gain than our sample group has,” says Marcus. “It might be that this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
This trend also raises concerns regarding the epidemic of obesity Americans faced even before the pandemic. “One of the most prevalent conditions in this country and around the world is increased weight and obesity,” says Dr. Donald Hensrud, director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, as explained in January in a Mayo Clinic News Network report. “Approximately 70% of Americans are either overweight or have obesity. … During COVID-19, we’ve taken things to another level.”
Hensrud goes on to say that making small changes can make a big difference.
“On a practical basis, I can’t emphasize enough that eating a healthy diet does not have to be drudgery. It should be enjoyable. There’s a lot of great food out there,” he says.
He concludes by urging people to try to engage in some activity every day. It can be as simple as taking a walk outside. USA Today’s Joel Shannon recently took the suggestion a step further. “A new tool to fight COVID-19 is on the rise across the United States: warm, fresh air,” he writes. As we roll into spring and summer, taking a walk in the great outdoors provides people with what some experts are calling an opportunity to “enjoy low-risk outdoor activities to better their physical and mental health.”
Nooshin Razani is a University of California, San Francisco, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and co-author of a widely cited systematic review of studies on indoor versus outdoor spread of COVID-19 and similar viruses. “Outdoors are not only safe but really, really important,” he explains to Shannon. His study found there was about a 20 times higher chance of transmission indoors than outdoors.
As to what is safe to do outside, experts are “generally hesitant to label any activity completely safe because a host of factors are at play,” Shannon writes. “Exercising outdoors with members of your household is among the most commonly cited examples of a safe activity,” he says.
For those who have been avoiding outdoor activities out of caution, Gleb Tsipursky, author of “Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic,” points out that depriving yourself of joy does not necessarily keep you any safer.
“COVID is not a punishment for sin,” adds Razani. “It’s a respiratory virus that primarily spreads between people in close proximity, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.”