As we all face the unknown prospects of a COVID-19 global pandemic, rather than panic, we can see this as an opportunity to disconnect a little, and reorient our priorities. Changing some unhealthy habits, into healthy ones.
Health is much bigger than simply washing our hands properly and social distancing. Our bodies are incredible machines, and what we chose to put in them makes a big difference in their performance. But overall health is even bigger than this… we must focus on our mental health too, if we want to make it through a crisis such as this.
Just before this crisis began, through the help of Ellen, a close friend, and a book I read, Atomic Habits by James Clear, I began making some health and lifestyle changes in my life for the better. It has been hugely helpful to my mental and physical health, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. I am by no means an expert, I’m simply along for the ride just like you. But I have acquired some helpful tips that think worth sharing.
I want to list out a few points and explain a little here. Some of this will seem quite obvious to many of you, but I hope that all can glean something.
First, we should definitely do what’s right. And what’s right is to follow the advice of medical professionals for simple ways to “flatten the curve.”
- Wash hands thoroughly.
- Practice basic good hygiene.
- Stay home as much as possible, distancing ourselves from others.
- Cover your mouth when you cough.
- Avoid contact with high risk individuals, for their safety.
- Think of others when you have to go out.
These are the CDC recommendations. They are certainly a great place to start. But by no means should we end there.
For general good mental and physical health, might as well start some excellent habits now, when we need them to potentially survive, like:
- Eat foods rich in vitamin c and iron, like spinach every day.
- Exercise. It helps activate and strengthen your immune system.
- Spend time in nature daily. It’s really good for your mental health.
- Practice deep breathing. This will relieve the stress and anxiety, as well as boost your immune system.
- Call your friends and family. Make it a point to call a different person you care about daily to check on them. Especially while we are in the self-quarantining phase of this epidemic. Loneliness and isolation can be hugely detrimental to mental health.
- Unplug. Don’t simply use this time to binge watch show after show or play video games for hours on end. Try simply reading or playing a broad game with a partner.
- If you are religious, pick up your bible. Pray. Feeling connected to God actually affects your brain chemistry, not just your spirituality.
Now, this all sounds great, but how do we turn these into habits that we take with us long after this pandemic (hopefully) slows down and cools off? This is where the advice of my wife, my friend, and the book come in handy. Because let’s face it, all of these things are good for us to implement into daily life, except of course the extreme social distancing.
First, we need to identify what we want to accomplish by implementing these new habits. You can also look at it like this… what negative aspect of your life do you want/ need to change? I find either way works. So for example, I realized that I had gained weight and didn’t like how I felt. I was also struggling through depression, and not seeing any progress. So I began to list good daily habits that I could employ for my life to change this.
- Eat healthier
Simple, right? Well now we will dive into one example, and how to make it into a habit. You can apply it to all the new habits you want to create.
Let’s start with exercise. It wasn’t that I didn’t exercise. Or even that I didn’t exercise often. I needed to make it a daily habit, so it was almost automatic, and so my body would crave it. So first I identified what exercise specifically I could do anywhere, anytime. Take away all barriers. Don’t say, “Go to the gym everyday” if that’s unrealistic for you. Pick an activity that you have no excuses not to do. And then if you want to go to the gym on top of the other activity, great. Bonus.
Next, plan out your week on Sunday afternoon, and put your exercise on the calendar for each day that week at the optimal time. That time can even change from day to day, depending upon your schedule. Just make sure you PUT IT ON THE CALENDAR. Say out loud, “I will [behavior] at [time] in [location]. It really is important to be specific and to speak it. Studies show that you are much more likely to do something if you say it aloud and it is on your calendar.
This is making your new habit obvious. In Atomic Habits, the next steps are to make it attractive, easy, and satisfying. I highly recommend the book so you can get repetition, and deeper insights into each of these. For my purposes here, I will make things simple.
So how do you make it attractive? I’ll just use one example here that I find helpful, but there are several others in the book. Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do. As most of you know, I have two Australian shepherds. They need a TON of exercise. So I have paired their exercise, which is an action I need to do, with my exercise, the action I want to make into a new habit. They begin to crave that certain time of day when we go for a run, and I am starting to as well.
Next, make sure you make it easy for yourself to accomplish this daily goal. Simply remove the roadblocks that may get in the way. Get the right equipment, make that time sacred, reduce the friction.
Now you can make it satisfying. Exercise in itself ends up being satisfying if you stick with it. You feel better and look better. But early on, you may have to entice yourself with other “treats” to get to that point. I am a list maker. I get supreme satisfaction from crossing something off my to-dos. So that’s one way I gain satisfaction. I also have an insatiable sweet tooth. So I allow myself a small treat of four peanut m&m’s when I’m done with my run. Even a small treat like this can really help motivate you and make your new habit satisfying in the beginning, when it kinda sucks.
Let this whet your appetite to begin making some changes. While we’re all stuck inside, away from others, let’s make positive changes for ourselves. We can chose to see this trial as a catalyst for change. An excuse to come out better than we were before.
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