The State of Our Health in 2020
A brief glance at some recent numbers paints a dismal picture of Americans’ overall health as we closed out 2020.
Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program measures six domains in human life: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material security. The program found that, on a scale of zero to 10, physical and mental health have gone down by seven-tenths of a point (from 6.9 to 6.2) during the pandemic. Happiness and life satisfaction are also down, from 7.1 to 6.4.
Our food habits have definitely contributed to this. A recent WebMD survey showed that on average, people gained eight pounds over a 90-day period during COVID-19. Another 21 percent gained 10 to 20 pounds, and 4 percent gained over 21 pounds. Another study, from New Mexico State University, reported that 68 percent of respondents reported that their diet quality had worsened or remained the same during the pandemic.
Physical health isn’t the only area of our lives suffering because of the pandemic, though. Perhaps even more alarming is the state of our mental health. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Substance abuse is especially worrying. A report in the JAMA Network Open journal found that dangerous drinking is up: American adults say they're drinking 14 percent more often during the coronavirus pandemic. Heavy drinking by women (four or more drinks within a couple of hours) has shot up 41 percent during the pandemic.
These factors not only damage our overall health, but they also diminish our effectiveness when it comes to setting and keeping goals, whether it’s running that 10K or just spending more time with the family. To reach those goals, we must first deal with the above health issues in some very basic ways.
Physical health should be a priority here. It affects our sleep patterns, energy levels, emotions, and so much more, and how much you do can set the tone for an entire day.
To get your physical health back on track, you don’t have to become a champion weightlifter or head to Crossfit seven days per week. Start by committing (or recommitting) to a simple exercise regime that happens a few days each week. A good example is doing 30 minutes of cardio for three days every week.
This is more easily accomplished when you also commit to a certain time of day in which to do this exercise. Consider your schedule to determine whether mornings, afternoons, or early evenings are most appropriate. Then, pick a time and stick to it. By committing to a time, you’ll be more likely to build a long-lasting habit.
Technology can help. Today, we have more choices than ever when it comes to fitness trackers, alarms, and even apps that can help you set and maintain exercise goals. Do a little research before you start out to see what is available and would work best for your chosen exercise regime.
Remember, start small and stick with the process. Once you are regularly exercising a few days every week, you can add another day or extend your timeframe from 30 minutes to one hour. The point is to master the small things before you move on to extreme workouts and feats of physical strength and endurance. Top trainers note that when we set exercise goals that are too lofty to realistically achieve, we wind up feeling worse about ourselves than we did before we ever headed back to the gym. Instead, tackle your exercise regime one goal at a time, bearing in mind why you are doing it in the first place.
Clean Your Plate
Food is another area that is easy to complicate with overly lofty goals or unrealistic expectations. The temptation here is to reach for the nearest diet—keto, paleo, etc.—and let that guide you through your new year’s weight-loss goals.
The trouble is, that rarely happens. Studies, including a recent one from the National Library of Medicine, have found that popular diets simply don’t work for the vast majority of the population. More often than not, forcing yourself to stick to a restrictive diet only leaves you with disappointment and frustration.
That doesn’t mean that all diets are bad. In fact, the common denominator of the most popular ones is that they aim to remove certain foods from your eating patterns you would be better off without anyway. That includes heavily processed meals, added sugars, unhealthy fats, caffeine, and artificial ingredients. These foods take a toll on both our waistlines and our emotional health. The less you eat of them, the better.
That said, many of us have partaken of these foods a lot during the last several months. NPD noted recently that U.S. consumers have been turning to “treats” as comfort during the pandemic. There should be no shame here. After all, we are still in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis and most of us have never had to cope with a situation on par with COVID-19. In other words, there will inevitably be some stress eating in times like these.
But once you have identified that, you can address your eating habits, including snacking, by taking a look at some of the less-healthy foods you have relied on for the last several months and replacing them with alternatives. Consider snacking on raw veggies instead of potato chips. Or research healthier snacks, some of which even offer health benefits. At meals, design your plate to be made up of half vegetables, one quarter protein, and one quarter of another item, such as grains or potatoes. Stock up on fresh fruit to get your sweet fix.
Before you begin, dedicate some time to research how you can incorporate the healthy foods you actually like into your meals. One of the reasons most diets do not work is that they restrict us to eating foods we do not enjoy. But there are endless choices nowadays when it comes to our meals and snacks. Keeping a list of what you like, along with recipes to help you incorporate those items into your meals, will make your eating habits far less burdensome than, say, going keto.
Finally, turn this shift to healthier eating into a culinary adventure for yourself. Make it a point to try new foods. You never know what you might discover you love that can bring physical and mental benefits to your body.
The pandemic has taken a serious toll on our mental health. In a survey conducted by the CDC, 40.9 percent of respondents said they have had “at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition” during the pandemic. Among those, 30.9 percent reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, 26.3 said that they had symptoms of trauma- and stressor-related disorder, and 13.3 percent reported substance abuse in response to COVID-19.
Many mental-health conditions require medical care, and it is always a good idea to speak with your doctor if you are experiencing serious symptoms of one.
Even if you are not, there are still things you can do each day to keep your mental health as fit as your physical makeup. One of the most important is also the simplest: Pause.
Our daily lives are filled with constant activity: meeting deadlines at work, caring for children, caring for aging parents, and volunteer obligations, to name a few. With many still working from home, it is also more difficult to detach work from the rest of your life, which makes it harder to shut down at the end of the day.
Pausing is as simple as it sounds. Take time throughout the day to step away from your activities and just sit quietly. The exercise can be as basic as setting a few alarms then taking a five- to ten-minute timeout whenever they go off.
Once you have mastered this, you might try a few breathing exercises, which gets more oxygen into your brain, and even some meditation. There are many helpful apps out there offering guided meditations. These can be as brief as a few minutes and as long as an hour. Whichever you choose, the overarching point is to give your brain a rest from your many tasks and obligations. While stopping to sit still and do nothing might feel strange at first, it becomes more natural—and beneficial—with practice.
Sleep More, Drink Less
Another thing you can do to improve mental health is to establish good sleeping habits, which can give us more energy throughout the day and improve our overall outlook and emotions. We can’t always control when we fall asleep, but we can commit to getting into bed and waking up at the same time each day.
For sleep, choose times that are realistic. If you have obligations that keep you busy until 8 p.m., it is unrealistic that you are going to be ready for bed by 8:30 or 9. If waking up earlier is a goal for you, start by setting your alarm to go off 30 minutes earlier than it normally would. A person who rises at 7 a.m. but wants to get up at 5 won’t likely make that shift overnight. But with small steps made consistently, that goal can eventually be reached, and sooner than you would imagine.
Reducing or outright eliminating alcohol is one of the biggest boosts you can give your mental health next year. Alcohol’s effects on the brain and body are legion, and some of them are long-term. A moderate drinker (two or more drinks per day) may suffer from irritability and mood swings. They are also at risk for certain cancers. Heavy and/or chronic drinkers are at risk of depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and, in extreme cases, permanent brain damage. That’s to say nothing of the emotional and financial toll that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to.
For lawyers, many activities and stress-relief methods involve alcohol, adding to the problems outlined above. As you continue to optimize your health in the new year, consider alternatives. If you must attend a happy hour, find low-alcohol or no-alcohol drinks. Even better is to find activities outside of work that fulfill you but do not involve drinking. Social clubs, such as those on meetup.com, classes (even online ones), and book clubs can all provide social and emotional fulfillment without the booze.
Finally, and most importantly, when it comes to any kind of health, do not be afraid to reach out to another person for help. The pandemic has left us holding much more stress than we normally would going into the new year. It is not a sign of weakness if you need assistance carrying that burden. Rather, knowing when you need to seek support, whether that’s through a therapist, spiritual advisor, support group, or your own family, is a mark of real strength. When we acknowledge our own vulnerabilities, we are closest to the kinds of profound changes that can lead to better habits, health, and happiness in the coming months.
Erin Clifford is a holistic wellness coach based in Chicago, Illinois.