How to reboot from unhealthy pandemic habits : Shots

Scheduling time on the calendar for a workout and setting small, achievable goals are just a couple of ways we can focus on rebuilding healthy habits.

Michael Driver for NPR


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Michael Driver for NPR

The early days of lockdown restrictions had a profound effect on people’s daily lives. Alcohol sales skyrocketed, physical activity dropped off sharply, and “comfort eating” led to weight gain, too.

So, what’s happened since March of 2020? After two years of pandemic life, many of these effects persist. The strategies we used to adapt and cope have cemented into habits for many of us. And this is not a surprise to scientists who study behavior change.

“We 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,” says Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book How To Change. In other words, our pandemic habits may be hard to break.

Take, for example, alcohol consumption. During the first week of stay-at-home restrictions in March 2020, Nielsen tracked a 54% increase in national sales of alcohol. This came as bars and restaurants closed. A study from Rand documented a 41% increase in heavy drinking among women in the months that followed. (Heavy drinking was defined as four or more drinks for women within a few hours.)

“Of concern is the fact that increases in drinking are linked to stress and coping,” says Dr. Aaron White of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. He points to a study that found a 50% increase in the number of people who said they drank to cope in the months right after COVID began compared to before the pandemic.

After a spike in sales in the spring of 2020, alcohol sales dipped.

But the most recent data from Nielsen show sales of beer, wine and spirits at the start of 2022 remain higher than they were in 2019. That trend is also reflected yearly: In 2019, spirit sales totaled about $16.3 billion, compared with $21 billion in 2021. Bottom line: Alcohol sales have remained higher than they were before the pandemic, even after adjusted for inflation.

Changes in physical activity have followed a similar pattern. Scientists at UC San Francisco analyzed data from a wellness smartphone app, Argus, which tracks daily step counts among users in countries around the globe. One month after stay-at-home restrictions were initiated in the spring of 2020, people took about 27% fewer steps a day, on average. That’s 1,432 fewer steps.

And what’s happened since? “The first decrease in activity was really the most drastic,” explains study author Geoff Tison, a cardiologist at UCSF who continues to track the smartphone data. In the U.S., physical activity picked up during spring and summer months (both in 2020 and 2021), when cases retreated and there was more daylight, but declined again amid fall

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Heart healthy eating starts with your habits, statement says

That doesn’t mean giving up takeout or that five-minute meal kit from the grocery store altogether. The dietary guidance encourages people to adapt these habits into their lifestyle.

The statement identifies 10 features of heart-healthy eating patterns — including guidance to combine a balanced diet with exercise; consume most nutrients through food over supplements; eat whole grains; reduce sodium, added sugar and alcohol intake; use non-tropical plant oils; and eat minimally processed, over ultra-processed, foods.

“What’s really important now is that people make modifications that can be sustainable in the long term,” said Alice Lichtenstein, director of Tufts University’s Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and chair of the writing group for the AHA’s new statement.

The statement’s writing group evaluated literature and devised 10 features of heart-healthy dietary patterns. The group also expanded on the guidance, recognizing the need for sustainability and societal challenges that can be obstacles to achieving proper nutrition.

Lichtenstein said eating behaviors have changed since the AHA last published a statement with dietary guidance 15 years ago. Previously, the main options were to eat out or dine in, but eating habits have been less consistent in recent years. There has been a trend — exacerbated by the pandemic — of more convenience food options, such as delivery, meal kits and premade meals.

Make changes that go the distance

The focus of the AHA’s new guidance, Lichtenstein said, is to do what works for you, whatever dietary restrictions or cultural adaptions you want to make. Lichtenstein discourages people from making drastic changes based on fad diets — instead, sustained efforts in incorporating these healthy habits can be more beneficial in the long run.

Lauri Wright, chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, seconds this long-term mindset. Wright, who was not involved with the AHA’s statement, emphasized the focus on building lifestyle habits, regardless of people’s ages and backgrounds.

“When we’re talking pattern or a lifestyle, we’re not just talking about a diet — something temporary,” Wright said. “This is really a lifestyle, and it really can accommodate all of your individualities.”

Mindful eating: 'Suddenly, you have power over food'

A heart-healthy way of eating can have other benefits, the statement said, fostering more sustainable practices for the environment. This year is the first time the AHA guidance has included sustainability. Lichtenstein said there is still room for research about plant-based alternatives, such as vegan animal products, which are not always the healthier options. But generally, consuming more whole foods and fewer animal products can benefit both your health and the environment.

The statement also recognizes societal challenges for the first time, such as food insecurity, diet misinformation and structural racism, which can all affect a person’s diet and access to food. A 2020 Northwestern University study found Black and Hispanic households are at greater risk for experiencing food insecurity.

Tackle 1 adjustment at a time

More comprehensive food education from an early age can also instill lifelong healthy eating

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