These are not normal times. So we need to cut ourselves a little slack when it comes to our expectations regarding healthy routines.
As someone who’s struggled with his weight his entire life — during the past five years, I’ve managed to lose, and keep off, 80 pounds — I offer a few thoughts for how to focus on your physical health in an age of coronavirus and social distancing.
Also, I’ve been working from home for more than five years. So I know a thing or two about making sure you’re not raiding the fridge and cupboards at every possible opportunity.
I’m not a medical professional. I was a pretty fat guy, though, so I also know a thing or two about defeating old habits, developing better ones and getting into a successful routine.
And I spent three years working on my latest book, “Big Problems: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter And What You Can Do To Fix It” (TarcherPerigree, $17), which came out Tuesday.
For the book, I interviewed doctors, body builders, trainers, nutritionists, marathon runners and more, I tried bodybuilding, long-distance running, powerlifting and even spin classes, CrossFit and yoga, to try to answer a few incredibly complex questions:
Why is it so hard to lose weight? Why is it so easy to get overweight? And what does it mean to be healthy?
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you deal with your health, eating habits and anxiety during this acceptably scary time.
Shoot for good enough, not perfection
It’s hard to have a successful routine regarding your physical health even when there isn’t a global pandemic. That’s why you should feel OK if you aren’t doing a zillion things. It’s OK to not eat “perfect.” (Perfection with your eating is a myth, by the way. There is no perfect meal. OK, maybe a pepperoni-and-sausage pan pizza from Pequod’s.)
Instead, focus on everything being good enough. Have a good enough workout (if you choose to exercise). Have a good enough meal.
Good enough right now is actually quite great.
Make a plan, do your best to follow it
If you’re concerned about your health during the lockdown, or just want to get in better shape — feel free to define this however you like, by the way — you need to make a plan. A goal without a plan is just a wish. So figure out what you’d like to work on. And some kind of structure right now is incredibly important.
If you’re concerned about eating too much while in lockdown mode, write out a meal plan that matches your goals. This can be as simple as deciding what you’re going to eat that day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Then, you just do the plan. And try to do it good enough.
What about when you wander through the kitchen and see some goldfish crackers? Maybe you should have six handfuls? Well, go back to the plan. Did you plan for goldfish crackers? No? Then, try to not eat ‘em.
Want to exercise more or keep up some kind of existing routine? Write down what your plan is. (I’m not going to tell you how to get into exercise. My book has a lot of options on that. Also, if you Google “home workouts” you’ll find 9,174 YouTube videos that are a great start.)
Once you’ve written down your plan, try your best to follow it. If it sucks and you hate it, look up a new kind of workout to do. The best workout is the one you’ll do consistently. And if you actually like what you’re doing, odds are you’ll do it more.
If you’re just starting and haven’t regularly done exercise before, ease into it. Do less than you think you should. That’ll make it more enjoyable in the long run, trust me.
When I began lifting weights five years ago, I started in my apartment for months, using cheap dumbbells I got on Craigslist and a crappy bench that smelled like feet before moving on to a gym and also running outdoors.
Now that the gym is closed, I “lift weights” three days a week at home using cables and small dumbbells and my body weight and also go on medium-length runs two or three days a week. It’s not perfect — but it’s good enough, especially now.
Am I planning on competing in a strength competition or bodybuilding competition or a marathon in the next few months? Uh, no. Neither are you. So whatever you’re doing, it’s good enough.
Don’t want to do strenuous exercise? Try walking! One recent large-scale study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that for every 4,000 steps a person took, regardless of their speed, their risk of dying from cancer, heart disease or anything else drops by at least 50 percent.
Just like with other endeavors, even if it’s walking, write down your plan, then try to stick to it.
For parents reading this, I know you’re being asked to do your regular job and be a teacher right now, so adding another daily task is daunting. But you need to take time to focus on yourself, too. You could always create a family workout time, even just a neighborhood walk, helping you complete your goals and your kids burn off some energy.
Focus on your mental health
One of the biggest things I discovered in my research is how much mental health plays a role in physical health. And if you are suffering from obesity currently, there’s a good chance you’re also dealing with anxiety, depression or both.
When your mental health is out of whack, it’s sometimes a full plate just to get out of bed, go to work and be productive. Trying to add other things on top of that — developing better eating habits, an exercise routine, writing that vampire-alien-werewolf-love-triangle stage play — can just be too much.
So if you don’t have the mental bandwidth to do more than you’re doing, that’s OK. Anyone who tells you differently is lying or probably has some fake productivity tool they’re trying to sell. We’re all already doing so much, and you should be proud of yourself just for making it through the day.
On this front, it might be good to not focus nonstop on the news. It can be stressful. For some, that stress can trigger overeating. Set timers for your daily social media usage and news consumption — basically a media diet. Getting your information in bigger chunks might be better than snacking throughout the day, just like with food.
Many mental health providers are offering teletherapy during the lockdown. And you can reach out to friends and family and do this thing people used to do way back in the 1990s: talk on the phone.
I just did a virtual Zoom “book party” to celebrate my launch and had people from across the country (and Canada) join in. I’ve had friends who’ve held virtual dinner parties (they all tried to make the same recipe), some who’ve had birthday parties, and one of my buddies attended a virtual wedding.
Community and connection are as important now as they were before COVID-19.
Get more sleep
Studies show you need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Any less leads to cognitive impairment, which makes it harder to stick with good habits you’ve set up.
Whenever I hear someone say “I only need two hours of sleep to hashtag grind and be perfect!” what I am hearing someone actually say is I am a big liar. Nobody’s functioning at 100 percent if they’re sleep-deprived.
And right now we’re all dealing with more stress than we’re used to. People we know are losing their jobs and their lives. Whenever I feel any slight ailment, I worry that I’ve gotten sick. I’m concerned for my neighbors, for the businesses around me and their workers, everyone.
Getting enough sleep can help your mental health immensely. It also helps you to make healthier decisions.
If you’re mentally fatigued or physically tired, of course, you’ll eat an entire bag of sour cream and onion chips (the height of Midwestern culinary luxury) instead of making a healthier meal. If you’re tired, it’s also a lot easier to say, “I’m just too exhausted to exercise today, so I’ll do it tomorrow.” And then the next thing you know, whatever healthy routines you’ve built are gone. And you have to start over again.
In the end, we’re going to get through this. I think we’re all going to be much more empathetic than we were. You already see people coming together, helping those in need, acting selflessly.
Just remember to be good to yourself, too. This is a rough time. Nobody’s going through this perfectly. And if you had some good habits before the lockdown and they’ve kinda slid to the side, hey, maybe that’s what you need right now.
Love yourself and others. You’re doing a great job.
Andy Boyle is director of product engineering for the Chicago Sun-Times.