Time to Undo Those Pandemic Bad Habits

Life during Covid gave rise to all kinds of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Which ones do we need to unlearn?
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Allison Foster is now getting back to gardening and exercise. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Working out was always a part of Allison Foster’s routine, whether she was biking to her job as CFO for a nonprofit or hitting the gym to blow off steam.

The pandemic threw everything off kilter. Though social distancing meant that Foster, 54, could work from home—she and her husband, Mark, a portfolio manager, live in Aurora Highlands with their two daughters, 14 and 11—the gym was closed, and other demands quickly ate up the time she had once reserved for a good sweat.

Worried for her kids’ well-being during lockdown, Foster scrambled to find new extracurricular options to keep them engaged (her younger daughter ended up doing a virtual learning program with Synetic Theater in Crystal City). At the same time, she was coordinating support for her elderly parents, who live in Louisa County, Virginia, near Lake Anna. Her dad has Parkinson’s disease and dementia, which got “much, much worse” without social interaction, she says, and her mom’s heart problems “kind of snowballed” amid feelings of isolation and depression.

Distance made it harder for Foster to help her folks, who are an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital. “To call an ambulance is a big deal,” she says. Sometimes “they call me from an hour-and-a-half away and say, ‘Can you come down here and help?’ They have two neighbors who have been a godsend, taking them to the doctor and to get groceries.”

Still, she worries.

The constant stress, “compounded by the fact that I have not been going to the gym or biking…means I am terribly out of shape now,” Foster says. “I usually love to exercise, but I just could not be motivated. I have fallen into the habit of working far too many hours, which means a lot of time sitting in my office chair and nothing to break up my day.”

Also, she has gone from being a sound sleeper “to spending a lot of nights on the couch reading, trying to fall back asleep.”

As pandemic protocols shifted our way of life this past year, many of us found ourselves stretched thinner than ever before, juggling roles as parents, caregivers, employees, teachers, cooks, maids, coaches, sounding boards, tech support providers and peacekeepers. (“The open space concept looks great on television,” Foster says of the current trend in home design, “but doors are sometimes a good thing.”)

In the process, our own health and well-being often took a back seat. Falling into survival mode, many of us developed ways of coping that were less than positive.

A “Stress in America” poll released by the American Psychological Association in March found a majority of essential workers (54%) reporting that they had relied on unhealthy habits to get through the pandemic. Two in 5 said they had gained more weight than intended over the last year—an average of 29 pounds. Nearly 1 in 4 adults reported drinking more to cope with stress, and 2 in 3 reported sleep disruptions stemming from anxiety and shifts in routine.

Aaron Dodini, director of Dodini Behavioral Health in Rosslyn, has seen the toll firsthand in the patients who visit his practice.

“People are working more hours. They’re eating more junk. They’re exercising less,” he says. “These are key factors for self-care, and as self-care gets eroded, it affects mental health.”

Individuals who are stressed also tend to fall back on old bad habits, he says. “If someone had an eating disorder earlier, those eating patterns start to kick back in. There’s a regressiveness.”

Those who managed well through the pandemic were “the ones who connected” with others, Dodini says. “That seems to really be an antidote to the challenge of isolation.”

Though working from home offered a break from commuting, workplace experts note that a lot of employees simply filled the time and began working more—not less. In a nationwide survey conducted last summer by the staffing firm Robert Half, 45% of professionals said they routinely work more than 8 hours a day. Nearly 70% said they work on weekends.

Remote work does provide greater flexibility, but “it also makes disconnecting extremely difficult,” observes Paul McDonald, the firm’s senior executive director. “Many people feel pressure to keep up with rising workloads and are putting in long hours.”


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Arlington wellness coach Colleen Avis. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

The ever-presence of work has clear downsides. Nearly 4 in 5 respondents in a TELUS International survey of 1,000 Americans last fall said they found it hard to “shut off” from their jobs in the evenings. More than half said they had not taken a mental health day since they started working from home during Covid; 44% said they had not taken a single day of vacation since they started working from home.

Colleen Avis, a wellness coach in Arlington, has watched this trend playing out locally. “I’m hearing people are working 25% more, seven days a week,” she says. “There’s a lot of relapse of alcohol abuse, a lot of sleeping problems.”

Avis teaches yoga and meditation (she is a certified instructor and meditation teacher for the Chopra Center, a meditation center based in Carlsbad, California), with a focus on what she calls the six pillars of wellness: sleep, mindfulness, emotional well-being, nourishment, movement and nature. “You need to put together a tool kit,” she says, “to rebalance.”

Douglas Park resident Jonathan King used to enjoy doing the occasional sprint triathlon and even participated in an Olympic distance triathlon. But lately he’s had no time.

A repair shop foreman in Fairfax County, he’s been juggling the demands of his full-time job while going to school (he’s working toward his undergraduate degree at George Mason University), caring for his toddler son, and getting his father, 65, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, to clinical trials for treatments that may help stem the disease.

At 32, King is younger than most members of the “sandwich generation”—a group often defined as middle-age adults who are simultaneously caring for older parents and kids—but he’s feeling the crunch.

“[My father] can go on a family walk with the dog…but can’t pursue activities on his own,” says King, who lives with his wife, their young son and his dad in a house King’s grandparents bought decades ago. “He’s always been self-sufficient. He was a contractor for his whole life. He doubled the size of our house. Now he can’t read a tape measure.”

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Jonathan King with his father, John; his wife, Alejandra; their son, Michael; and the family dog, Zoe. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Life in the time of Covid brought more stress to King’s already harried situation. The nature of his job meant that he couldn’t work from home. “The fear was I would bring the virus home to my [family],” he says. “I had access to the proper PPE, but it still crosses your mind that you could get sick.”

At the same time, there were some surprising upsides. While the shift to distance learning was tough for most students, it was a saving grace for King. Being able to attend his business management class online reduced the time he spent commuting, freeing up more hours for family. “Covid’s been bad for a lot of people but for me, [virtual school] really did help me out,” King says, though exercise is still hard to fit in. “Since having a kid and also caring for my dad, it is extremely difficult to find time for basically any physical activity.”

After a year of laptop-surfing and chronic malaise, many of us have much to unlearn physically, and injuries to undo, says Andy Shin, a personal trainer who’s been offering both in-person and virtual consultations. Quarantining revealed that a lot of us don’t have the right equipment to exercise—or work—from home. That’s caused a range of physical problems, from back and neck injuries to carpal tunnel syndrome.

If you’ve appreciated the convenience of exercising in your own basement or living room, Shin advises taking a closer look at your workout setup, as well as your technique, before you continue down that path.

“People often don’t have adequate space at home to train,” says the Arlington fitness coach, explaining that simple exercises like lunges and jumping jacks can become less than beneficial when performed in cramped areas without room to move and fully extend. The focus of home workouts should be “mostly on your core and getting your heart rate up in a safe manner,” he advises, using simple items like resistance bands, a kettlebell or a dumbbell.

Americans tend to be sedentary, and have become even more so over the past year, in part because they aren’t taking lunch breaks or getting up to stand around the proverbial water-cooler. Shin says he’s seeing “tighter necks, back injuries, tight muscles. It’s harder for people to get out of bed.”


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Thought Catalog on Unsplash

As the vaccine rollout continues, the slow return to “normalcy” will at least force us off the couch. A March study by the Society for Human Resource Management found more than half of the companies it surveyed plan to bring employees back into the office by July.

At least part of the time. The great Covid experiment has made many employers more amenable to hybrid work arrangements, enticed by the cost-cutting benefits of smaller commercial leases—and the fact that so many employees are starting to insist on it. More than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. workers would prefer a hybrid workplace model after the pandemic ends, according to a “Pulse of the American Worker” survey conducted for Prudential in March. Of those surveyed who have been working remotely, 87% said they wanted to continue to work from home at least one day per week.

There were some bright spots in the era of social distancing. One big one was that it pushed more people outside. “I’ve never seen so many people walking,” says Avis, the wellness coach. “Nature is providing a really beautiful tool.” Sunlight and fresh air can do wonders for body and mind.

While some coped by turning into workaholics, for others, this surreal time prompted a reboot of their whole notion of work, and some big-picture reassessments.

Avis says she’s seen “a lot of ambitous, driven Type A people” who previously focused on intense workouts adopting additional forms of self-care, such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness exercises. “Maybe taking on a physical or mental challenge, like mastering a handstand, setting up habits to promote better sleep, rekindling an old hobby or starting a new one—all tools to create well-being,” she says. They’re also looking for new ways to connect with others, “maybe something larger than themselves.”

Margo Ten Broeck Calkin, assistant manager of corporate health at Virginia Hospital Center, has been making more of an effort to practice what she preaches. When Covid began, her job helping companies provide wellness programs to their employees shifted dramatically. Not only did the programs move online, they began to focus more on balancing work and homelife.

“Before, if we held a webinar on loneliness, people would have been embarrassed to show up,” says Calkin, 52. “Now people feel OK with admitting this. It has taken away the taboo.”

On a personal level, she says, “It’s been good for me, mentally, to have to study and research self-compassion.”

During the year of social distancing, Calkin embraced having more time with her 16-year-old son, a student at Arlington Tech, as they worked and studied out of their home in Falls Church. (Her son’s father lives in Arlington.) “Usually, my son would have had a lot of other activities,” she says. “We’re exercising, cooking together. We’ve had little adventures. We’ve walked all of Arlington. It’s been a wonderful time in a very difficult situation.”

Calkin also took it upon herself to keep an eye on her neighbors. “I live in a community that has a lot of elderly people around me. I’ve been very conscious about checking in on them,” she says. That’s meant shopping, driving them to doctors’ appointments and sharing information about vaccination availability. She also spearheaded the planting of a garden in her community, Winter Hill, that is now flourishing and feeds low-income seniors. “We got everybody outside. We got to connect,”she says, beaming.

“The important thing we’ve learned from this is to slow down,” Calkin says. “We’ve missed friends, but we didn’t miss all the scheduling. This is a little more how life used to be. For the first time, I’m not embarrassed when someone asks, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ and I say, ‘I don’t really know.’ ”

Return to Wellness

As life gets back on track, now is a good time to reassess. Which unhealthy habits that we developed during the pandemic need to be undone? Are there certain changes for the better that are worth keeping? Tap into these resources as you and your family members embark on your journey back to health and happiness.

Screen Shot 2021 06 26 At 111718 AmErgonomics

If you moved into a makeshift home office during the pandemic that you plan to continue using, take some time to ensure that your setup is supporting and not ruining your posture. Sitting for prolonged periods of time without breaks—particularly at a workstation without proper alignment—can cause a host of problems, according to chiropractor Michael Moses of Arlington Pain & Rehab in Clarendon, from tendonitis and tennis elbow to neck and back injuries. Don’t know if your work surface is the right height or if your chair is adjusted properly? Find guidelines offered by the Mayo Clinic and the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Screen Shot 2021 06 26 At 111730 AmSleep

Pandemic stress caused plenty of sleep disruption. If you need to get back on track, the Sleep Foundation recommends having a fixed time to start and end each day and having a relaxing “wind-down time” before heading off to bed. Foundation experts emphasize the importance of creating an association in your mind between your bed and sleep. This means if you’ve been working from bed while working from home, it’s time to break that habit. And try to avoid too much screen time right before bed. The blue light produced by electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets and computers has been found to interfere with your body’s natural sleep-inducing processes.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of taking naps, that may be bad for your job, but it’s not necessarily bad for your health. Rather than approaching naps haphazardly, consider a consistent schedule. Studies suggest that keeping naps to 20 minutes or less provides restorative sleep without disrupting your circadian rhythm.

Finally, spend some time outside each day, in natural light. Whenever possible, open windows and blinds to let daylight into your home. Doing so will improve your sleep and your mood.

Screen Shot 2021 06 26 At 111739 AmDiet & Fitness

If you’re trying to lose the “Covid 19” pounds so many say they’ve gained, consider consulting with a registered dietician, or at least take some advice from the USDA’s MyPlate website, which lays out the foods that should be on your plate if you want to eat right. It even has an app to help you maintain a healthy diet. If you’ve fallen into a pattern of disordered eating, the Arlington nonprofit Rock Recovery offers help and resources.

Want to get back in shape? Arlington Parks & Recreation offers a variety of drop-in fitness classes and activities, as do Virginia Hospital Center, the McLean Community Center and the City of Falls Church. Take advantage of outdoor yoga, Zumba, boot camps and other workouts, many of which are free, organized by the business improvement districts (BIDs) in National Landing, Rosslyn and Ballston. Similar programming is available on Columbia Pike  and in and the Mosaic District. Discover new bike routes with maps from BikeArlington and sign up for local 5Ks and other races through Pacers Running.

Screen Shot 2021 06 26 At 111748 AmMindfulness

Arlington wellness coach Colleen Avis believes that mindfulness is a powerful tool for mitigating stress and balancing work and family responsibilities. Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.

“People have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. A large percent of those are repeated thoughts,” Avis says. She recommends taking time to stop and smell the roses—or maybe your morning coffee. “Be aware of your senses and the smells and sounds around you. Practice noticing. As you make your coffee, take time to enjoy the aroma, to pick the right cup. Take the first four or five sips and enjoy them in silence with awareness before you sit down.”

Find other mindfulness and meditation resources from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The Teal Center for Therapeutic Bodywork in Ballston offers massage, acupuncture, wellness classes, life coaching and other holistic services. Sun & Moon Yoga in Arlington offers meditation sessions on YouTube and Zoom, and a variety of yoga sessions (both group and individual) focused on healing.

Stephenie Overman is a writer specializing in health and workplace issues. She lives and works at home in Reston.

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Categories: Health & Fitness