How to Stay Healthy While Social-Distancing

While social-distancing is necessary to reduce the impact of COVID-19, the past months of social-distancing may have made it challenging to stay physically and mentally healthy. To adapt from a pre-existing lifestyle to these new times can be tough, and it is expected that it will take quite some time and effort to adjust. I want to initially acknowledge that this pandemic does not affect everyone equally; some of you may be more impacted if you or your loved ones are immunocompromised, if you lost your job, if there was a radical change in your routine, if current and future plans have been disrupted, or other unique circumstances. Each person comes in with their own set of challenges, and some people’s situations may make it a lot harder to adapt and establish a healthy routine. There is clearly no easy way to deal with each of the challenges that we face in these new times and suggesting that there are simple solutions would be naïve. Nonetheless, one thing remains true: we must give our fullest effort and top priority to stay strong and healthy no matter of the situation. After some time, it may be possible to have a stable lifestyle during this pandemic and even treat this as an opportunity to grow and thrive such that we become stronger individuals once this all ends.

Based on my experience and the experiences of others I have listened to, I have created a list of ideas to be physically and mentally healthy during the pandemic. My experiences are biased and limited, so this is definitely not an all-encompassing list. However, hopefully it provides some ideas to follow and gives you inspiration to think about other healthy behaviors that fit your lifestyle.

1. Social-distancing does not have to mean social-isolation

As social beings, one of the main issues many of us may face is social-isolation due to quarantining at home. We interact with much fewer people than we did before, or we interact with the same people every day in our household. In the past, spontaneous interactions with others have made it easy to stay social, although that obviously cannot happen now as we social-distance. Therefore, we must be more structured and disciplined with how we stay connected with our friends and family.

Using an online video chatting service (i.e. Facetime, Zoom, Messenger, etc.), plan scheduled times to call friends or family members. This ensures that you are being disciplined with staying social and connecting with your loved ones.

Let’s face it, many of us may be getting sick of getting in Zoom calls all the time. Try being creative and doing something different such as playing games remotely on jackbox.tv or skribbl.io, starting a book club with friends, or watching movies and TV shows together. Get creative with finding activities that you and your friends can enjoy together.

This is more challenging to do remotely, but it may be possible. You should still try and find ways to make new connections and friends. Perhaps you can meet mutual friends during group calls, or your school or workplace may run club meetings and virtual social gatherings.

Using NetflixParty to watch a documentary with friends on Zoom as a way to stay connected

2. Spend time outdoors (while still obeying CDC guidelines)

Staying indoors all the time is not healthy, period. Many of us, including me at first, have associated social-distancing with staying sedentary. We justify to ourselves that this is required to help prevent transmission. This does not have to be the case, and we can still uphold proper safety while being active and going outdoors frequently. While ensuring that CDC guidelines are being followed, take some time every day to be outdoors. Ensure that you are more than 6 feet away from others, and wear a face-mask especially when walking in a public area. Avoid narrow trails or busy parks that make it difficult to maintain social-distancing restrictions.

Going for walks in the morning can be an enjoyable way to have time for yourself while social-distancing

3. Focus on exercise and diet

Doing workouts at home is tough to start — we often go to the gym since it is an effective environment to get motivated to exercise and it has the workout equipment. This may not initially be easy, but creating your own home workout regimen is more important than ever. There are several home workouts you can do that do not require much space or equipment. Simple calisthenic (body-weight) workouts such as push-ups, ab workouts, and body-weight squats can go a long way if done routinely. If you have some dumbbells, you can also do other workouts such as CrossFit exercises. Many mainstream organizations and local gyms are offering live workout sessions that make it easier and more enjoyable to establish a home workout routine. Additionally, doing exercise outdoors is another great way to stay healthy (i.e. running, biking, or walking).

This is a tricky point to discuss since advice about diet depends so much on our current situation such as finances, availability of healthy food to buy, and the time we have. Therefore, I cannot provide too much specific advice on diet that is inclusive to all except to mention that regardless of our situation, we should still be giving as much effort and priority to diet as we can.

No convincing is needed to say that diet is extraordinarily important for our own physical and mental health. Often, just the act of focusing our attention on what we are eating can go such a long way in improving our diet. Without being mindful of what we are eating, we become unaware of how we are nourishing ourselves, and we often just eat whatever we can to simply fill our stomachs. Being mindful and educated about what we are eating can be the difference between eating whatever is available or choosing something a bit more healthy given our own circumstances. Perhaps you are unable to go on a fancy diet or get organic produce but being conscious about reducing processed foods and sugar intake can make you significantly healthier and happier.

4. Establish a new routine

Establishing a new routine may be the key to adapt to a change in environment. Routines are habitual and very dependent on external factors— because of this, the immediate change in environment due to the pandemic has likely disrupted your old routine. To be able to maintain healthy habits, establishing a new routine without being too attached to your old routine may be necessary. First, realize that some parts of your old routine cannot be salvaged, perhaps due to closings of businesses or social-distancing restrictions. We must adapt by getting creative with how we should form our new routine under these circumstances. In a positive light, the ability to adapt is such an important skill to maintain stability and grow as an individual, which will be valuable during and after this pandemic.

Put much more attention on your sleep schedule

Sleep is so essential to our health and is often disregarded by many of us, which makes it important to ensure that our sleep routine is maintained. Since work-at-home restrictions cause the days to blend together due to a lack of structure, our subconscious cues on when to go to sleep and wake up have likely been disrupted. We must adapt and establish new ways to ensure that we go to sleep at appropriate times. Rather than relying on subconscious cues to go to sleep, commit to consciously reminding yourself to prepare for bed at a certain time. Additionally, you can set reoccurring reminders on your phone to prepare for bed in case you forget. Set your alarm at a consistent wake-up time to have a stable morning routine while ensuring that you have a healthy amount of sleep (7.5–8.5 hours). Oversleeping can also be unhealthy as well. Just by having more structure on when you sleep and wake-up, you may realize that the rest of your day will also feel more structured and energized.

Start using your calendar to structure your day

The calendar is a powerful and underrated tool to establish habits and routines. If used effectively, it can allow us to maintain structure and stability in our day without exerting too much mental effort or willpower. Perhaps right now you use your calendar for scheduling meetings and professional-related events. It is time to get much more detailed with how you use your calendar — especially in regards to establishing routines. Personally, I use my calendar to schedule times such as when I exercise, what exercises I do, when I do work, and even what tasks I do for work. You can take it a step further to put in when you expect to sleep or wake-up, when and what you have for meals, and when you should do errands. The calendar can also help with non-work related items such as when you plan to call friends and family or spend time on a hobby.

From first glance, the idea of becoming detailed on the calendar may seem restricting or stressful, but counter-intuitively it is liberating and one of the most powerful ways to establish a routine and maintain discipline. Every night, document what you plan on doing for the next day or two in your calendar, getting as specific as you want. The act of planning your days in advance lets you be in control of that day rather than the day being in control of you. Additionally, planning your day can force you to visualize what you want to do the next day, making it significantly easier to perform what you planned. Planning your day also makes you think analytically about what you need to do to complete work and maintain healthy habits by considering the time needed to do these activities. Of course, it will take some attempts to really get this practice down, but after you’ve gotten the hang of it, it can really be a life-changer.

5. Explore new hobbies

With the reduced overhead of commuting and (unfortunate) cancellations of plans, we may have more time on our hands to try out new hobbies or explore different interests. In fact, committing to exploring new hobbies or spending more time on current hobbies and personal projects can make this time significantly more enjoyable. Take some time to think about hobbies and interests you’ve always wanted to do and plan these in your schedule to try them out. Unfortunately, there may be desired hobbies that are impossible to try due to social-distancing, but I am sure there are independent hobbies you desire that can be just as enjoyable. Here are some ideas related to hobbies I have been doing:

  • Reading more books from your to-read list; listening to audio-books and podcasts.
  • Trying new individual sports and outdoor activities (i.e. road cycling, marathon training, and fishing).
  • Taking online courses; learning how to code.
  • Writing blog posts or filming content for YouTube.

Overall, get creative and disciplined with trying out new hobbies, and you will likely have a much more enjoyable time during the quarantine!

Trying out road cycling as a new hobby and way of exercising

6. Take care of your emotional and mental health

Personally, I believe that meditation is a must-do habit for everyone. With all the craziness that is happening in the world (related to COVID-19 or not) and our own personal lives, it is crucial to take a step back from the extrinsic chaos that is occurring and connect with the intrinsic peace that exists within all of us. Now is a better time than ever to start establishing a meditation habit (and perhaps get more involved with spirituality). Schedule around 5–15 minutes daily to sit in a comfortable position in a quiet room or someplace outdoors and attempt to relax your mind and focus on your own consciousness. Being unable to relax your mind is expected when starting out and should be motivation for continuing this habit. Just the process of attempting to relax your mind and being more cognizant of your thoughts can go a long way in improving mental health. Even if you feel that you aren’t facing mental health issues, meditation can be a preemptive way to stay healthy. Additionally, meditation can help reveal subconscious conflicts occurring within your psyche that you haven’t realized before.

While it is important to be informed about the coronavirus pandemic to stay safe, consuming too much news can be stressful and, counter-intuitively, unhealthy and anxiety-provoking. Be disciplined with how often you read the news in a way that balances being well-informed and stress-free. Try reading the news once a day from reputable and level-headed sources, and avoid reading the news outside of this scheduled time.

7. Acknowledge your unique situation and keep a positive mindset

Everyone’s situation is unique and presents its own set of challenges. Acknowledge your own unique situation and be forgiving of yourself if you are struggling to stay healthy and positive during this pandemic, especially if others around you seem to have less challenges than you do. This is a tough time for so many of us, and there is no expectation to adapt to these new circumstances overnight. Just remember that the periods of time in our lives that are tough are the times where we have the most opportunity to grow. I’m sure many of us may be falling behind on our responsibilities at work, school, or our personal lives. This can be very difficult for us to deal with mentally. You are so much more than these responsibilities, so remind yourself that you are a human being who must grow and stay healthy to be able to spread positivity and kindness in this world.

I truly hope this provides some insight into staying healthy while social-distancing or gives some inspiration for thinking about other ways to stay healthy. So please stay safe and healthy, and I wish you and your loved ones the best during this pandemic.

Want to continue the conversation? Feel free to follow me or send me a direct message on Twitter @BasheerBecerra. Please share this article with anyone whom you feel this would help.

Bioinformatics PhD Student at Harvard Medical School