The global pandemic caused widespread lockdowns, separation, disruptions, and illness. Almost every person, company, and country in the world was heavily impacted.
You’re not alone if your life has changed since the pandemic. You have had to adapt to limitations, uncertainty, and changed routines, so your habits may now be different.
You might not have exercised as much during the pandemic, you may have consumed more alcohol, and your screen time may have increased.
Now that we’re moving away from the pandemic peak, it’s a great time to reboot and break those negative habits to embrace a healthier lifestyle. Here’s how.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic in March 2020. As of November 8, 2022, there have been 629,370,889 confirmed cases globally and 6,578,245 deaths.¹
Many countries enforced a degree of social distancing. Lockdown rules have varied from country to country, but most imposed limitations on socializing, travel, and leaving home. Some countries still have restrictions in place.
These lockdowns and restrictions have profoundly changed habits across populations. Social distancing has significantly affected how people work, travel, and interact. There is a new emphasis on remote working, less travel than before, and an emphasis on physical distancing — especially when sick.
During lockdowns and periods of social distancing, many people found they picked up unhealthy lifestyle habits they’d now like to stop.
A 2021 survey found 61% of Americans wish to break an unhealthy habit they formed during the pandemic.²
Some of the most common unhealthy habits include:
Reduced exercise and movement
Drinking too much alcohol
Excessive screen time
Too little sleep
The pandemic changed our eating habits. Shortages of some food products during the pandemic are one cause, but there are others too.
Social distancing forced people to stay at home for long periods, leading to boredom or stress eating. Increased anxiety also impacted appetite and cravings.
A cross-sectional study found that American adults consumed 14% more added sugars in March 2020 compared to February 2019.³ The cause appeared to be eating to cope with stress.
A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found the pandemic was linked to an increase in many unhealthy eating behaviors, including:⁴
Increased food consumption
Mindless eating and snacking
Eating as a coping mechanism
Increased eating disorders
Approximately 8% of participants engaged in extreme weight control behaviors. 53% experienced less extreme but still unhealthy weight control behaviors. 14% reported binge eating.
These behaviors were caused by stress, depressive symptoms, and pandemic-related financial challenges, according to researchers.
Unhealthy eating behaviors can be a serious health issue.
Melissa Simone, the study’s lead author, said:
“...[t]he ongoing pandemic may have significant negative consequences for the risk of eating disorders and symptoms.”
“Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates across all psychiatric health concerns, and therefore, it is important to try to make links between the consequences of the pandemic and disordered eating behaviors.”⁵
Consuming unhealthy foods — like highly-processed foods and sugar-sweetened drinks — can harm your health. Weight gain, obesity, and other conditions can increase your risk of experiencing 13 types of cancer.⁶
It’s not too late to start afresh if you adopted unhealthy eating habits during the pandemic. Here are some simple ways to get back on track with healthy eating:
Prepare and eat food mindfully to avoid unhealthy snacking.
Make conscious choices. Avoid buying highly processed foods and drinks and focus on consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole foods.
Cut back on sugars, caffeine, and alcohol — these can worsen anxiety.⁷
Have healthy snacks readily available. Fruit and nuts are easy to prepare and loaded with nutrients.
Drink lots of water. If you find yourself overeating, have a glass of water before reaching for a snack. You may find you were just thirsty, not hungry.
Manage your mental health by engaging in positive habits like meditation, mindfulness, and exercise. This could reduce your need to stress eat.
During the pandemic, there were fewer opportunities to be active. Gyms closed and we were encouraged to stay indoors as much as possible. This may have led you to exercise less.
A survey of 1,600 people found respondents were less physically active during the pandemic than in the six months before the pandemic.⁸ Insufficient space to exercise and not having the right equipment were factors. So too, were increased depression and anxiety, which reduced motivation.
Some experts warn a lack of exercise will lead to more illness. Scientists believe just the first few months of the pandemic and the resulting lack of exercise could cause 11.1 million new type 2 diabetes cases.⁹
Exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle. The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.
Try these methods for incorporating more healthy activity in your day:
Walk: This is one of the simplest and easiest ways to stay active. Go for regular walks in your neighborhood if you can. Try to avoid using your car or taking public transport for short journeys and walk instead.
Engage in accidental exercise: Fun activities like playing with children, dancing, and gardening can help keep you active.
Follow online exercise classes: If you can’t get outside, try free or paid exercise classes online. Just be sure to choose appropriate classes for your fitness level and abilities.
Step away from your desk: Take regular breaks throughout the day to interrupt sitting with standing and walking. Try to stand up every 30–60 minutes.
Find physical activities you enjoy: You’re much more likely to stick with an exercise routine if you like doing it.
Exercise with others: Meet up with a friend and exercise together. This may help you stay motivated.
It’s no secret that smartphones can be addictive. You might have found yourself scrolling more than usual when you were spending more time at home. Whether you were online shopping, chatting with friends, or browsing social media, our screens are a great form of escapism.
However, this habit can be hard to break.
One US study found that 12 to 13-year-old children doubled their non-school-related screen time in May 2020.¹⁰ Children of this age group spent 7.7 hours on average looking at screens per day, up from 3.8 hours before the pandemic.
2021 research found Americans in their twenties were using smartphones 28.5 hours per week on average. This was up from 25.9 hours per week in 2018.¹¹
A review of studies in 2020 and 2021 found some averages were even higher.¹² Research showed screen time for American adults increased by 60–80% after the pandemic. Overall screen usage was found to have increased by five hours a day in some groups.
More screen time is associated with many ill effects, including anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, weight gain, and binge eating.¹³ ¹⁴
Screens can be very addictive, but you can reduce the time you spend looking at your smartphone and other devices.
Try cutting down your screen time with the following tips:
Set daily screen time limits: Setting limits will help you keep track of your screen time and know when it’s time to put down your device.
Create device-free zones: You may find it helpful to restrict screen time in the bedroom or at the dinner table.
The WHO recommends no screen time for children under two years old and only one hour per day for children aged three to four.¹⁵
To help reduce screen time in children, provide hands-on activities for them to engage in. Establish clear rules, so children understand when it is and isn’t appropriate to look at screens.
Lead by example by reducing your own screen time.
Data shows many people started consuming more alcohol during the pandemic.¹⁶ It helped some people cope with increased anxiety and fear. For others, it helped combat boredom.
A 2021 survey also found that one in five Americans was consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol. Many said they had experienced negative mental and physical effects during the last 12 months.¹⁷
Melissa Fritsche, M.D., Addiction Medicine Specialist in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve observed an increase in alcohol consumption among my patients.”¹⁷
Another study found “dramatic increases in harmful alcohol consumption” during the first six months of the COVID-19 outbreak.¹⁸
Excessive alcohol consumption can cause harmful effects, including chronic disease, a weakened immune system, difficulty with learning and remembering, alcohol use disorder, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.¹⁹
Reducing your alcohol consumption is positive for your health. The following tips could help you drink less.
Understand what heavy drinking is: If you drink regularly, you may not even know you’re consuming a potentially harmful amount. The CDC recommends a maximum of two drinks or less per day for men or one drink or less per day for women.²⁰
Set clear limits: Rather than mindlessly consuming alcohol, set clear limits for when and how much alcohol you drink. Align those limits with the recommended intakes to ensure you don’t drink too much alcohol.
Find alcohol alternatives: Instead of reaching for a beer or glass of wine, try drinking an alcohol-free alternative, or even just sparkling water or herbal tea.
Engage in healthy activities: Rather than meeting friends for drinks, find alternative healthy activities. You could meet a friend for a walk or take up a hobby together.
Seek help: Don’t be afraid to reach out to a licensed healthcare professional to help combat your alcohol dependency. They can help you understand and change your relationship with alcohol.
The pandemic has even impacted our sleep habits.
A 2021 study found roughly 40% of people had experienced some degree of sleep challenges due to the pandemic.²¹
Having COVID-19 can also impact sleep, particularly when coupled with symptoms like cough and fever.²²
Follow these tips to get more high-quality sleep:
Set a regular bedtime and stick to it: Go to bed at the same time each night instead of waiting to feel tired.
Use relaxation techniques: Meditation, conscious breathing, and mindfulness are helpful practices to relax the body and prepare you for sleep.
Avoid excessive alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can interfere with sleep and reduce sleep quality. Stick to water, juice, and herbal teas before bedtime.²³
Do more exercise: Movement isn’t just good for your overall well-being — it can improve sleep quality, too.²⁴
The pandemic had widespread effects across the globe and changed our lifestyles. Many of us formed new habits during this time, some of which are unhealthy.
Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re not alone if you developed an unhealthy habit during the pandemic.
If there’s something you’d like to change, be clear about the new habit you’d like to replace the unhealthy one with.
Don’t feel you have to change overnight. Start small and build up healthy habits over time. Setting smaller daily goals can be less overwhelming.
Many people exercised less during the pandemic. Getting back on track and keeping active is a great way to improve your overall health and well-being.
Mindless eating also increased due to COVID-19. Pay attention to your eating habits. Eat mindfully, have healthy snacks available, and avoid highly processed foods.
One in five Americans is impacted by heavy drinking. Pay attention to the CDC alcohol guidelines. Avoid overdrinking and seek help if cutting back is challenging for you.
Screen time has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. You might find setting screen limits and device-free zones helpful.
Creating a bedtime routine and sticking to it can help improve your sleep habits.
Breaking unhealthy habits and starting new ones can be challenging. Reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional if you need help or advice.
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61% of Americans trying to break unhealthy pandemic habits | Value Penguin
The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked with six unhealthy eating behaviors | School of Public Health
Poor nutrition | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more | World Health Organization
Dietary guidelines for alcohol | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Chloe Garnham is a writer exploring a broad range of topics, including healthcare, education, and technology.