April 4, 2020
By Dr. Graham A. Colditz
Siteman Cancer Center
Daily life has changed to an amazing degree in the last few weeks. As individuals and communities work to contain the spread of COVID-19, one major adjustment for most of us personally is that we now spend much more time at home. This form of physical distancing, or sheltering in place, limits contact between people, which can help curb the infection’s spread.
As necessary as this distancing is, it is a change that can also be stressful, tedious and isolating, among many other things. So, as we all work to get used to our new and, ultimately, temporary reality, here are eight ways to look after your health, your well-being and yourself during these unique times.
Be kind to yourself. The great thing about physical distancing is that by doing nothing — just staying inside — we’re doing something really important. Despite what you may see on social media, you don’t need to be writing a novel, conducting your children in a symphony or even reorganizing your sock drawer — unless you really want to. Be kind to yourself, and just take time to figure out what works best for you and your family.
Take a break from the news. Even in normal times, the sheer volume of news can feel overwhelming. These days, it’s even worse. So, be sure to carve out chunks of the day when you take a rest and shut off the news and pandemic-related social media feeds. Pick up a book. Stream a TV show. Play a board game. The news will still be there when you get back to it.
Keep up healthy food choices. When our regular routines are upended, our food choices can be, too — and often not for the better. A healthy diet can be a good way to maintain some normalcy, help keep the immune system working well and keep calories in check during these times when we’re less active and may feel urges to eat because of stress or boredom. When stocking up at the grocery store, focus on nourishing and filling foods, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, brown rice, fruits and vegetables (frozen, canned or fresh) and beans. And if you buy sweets and less-healthy foods, store them out of sight so they’re less tempting. With the economy hard hit, food insecurity can also be an issue for many. For food assistance, or to donate, contact food banks in your area, or visit feedingamerica.org.
Keep moving. Although gyms are closed and exercise classes canceled, it’s still important to stay physically active. It can take a little extra creativity and more planning than before, but the payoff in energy, mood and overall well-being make it well worth it. YouTube is a great source for free yoga, dance and cardio videos. Exercise apps are another option. And, for most people, getting outside for a walk or bike ride is still allowed (while keeping a safe distance from others). Don’t worry about hitting specific goals, just try to fit something in on most days. You’ll be happy you did.
Stand more. This can sound a bit odd. But, on top of staying active, try to make an effort to stand more than you normally would when you’re at home. In our normal days before COVID-19, it’d be rare to sit for most of the day. Going to class, walking to meetings, doing errands or spending time with the kids, we were on our feet a good amount. Now, while most of us are spending much more time at home, we’re probably also spending much more time sitting. Long term, sitting too much is bad for health, and short term, it can sap some of our energy and just make the long days at home feel even longer. So, try to work some standing breaks into your schedule. Set a timer that chimes every half hour to remind you to get up for a short leg stretch. Or try standing when watching TV shows, working on your computer or playing with your pet.
Stay connected — virtually. While we may no longer be able to meet up with friends and colleagues in the real world, we can still stay connected through technology. Host a trivia game over group video chat, share recipes via text message or email, or just pick up the phone and have a long talk with your best friend. The options are wide open for making connections.
Check in with your health-care provider if you have an existing medical condition such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. See if there are any changes you should make during this time, such as rescheduling appointments, extending prescriptions or connecting remotely by telehealth rather than in person. Because COVID-19 can be more serious in some people with pre-existing diseases, it’s also especially important to follow recommendations for keeping safe, such as staying at home, avoiding groups and close contact with others, keeping surfaces clean and washing hands frequently.
Look after your mental wellness. This can be a time of stress, anxiety and loneliness for many people. So, as you’re looking after your physical health, it’s extremely important to also look after your mental and emotional health. Try to keep up with those things that can help with mood: physical activity, mindfulness and meditation, and connecting with friends using technology. Many people also need professional help. So, don’t be shy about calling a health-care provider or visiting the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) for resources. If you ever feel you’re in crisis, call 911 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) immediately.
We’ll get through this together, even as we’re safely distancing ourselves for now.
It’s our health. Let’s take control.
Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.