Now is the Time to Be Healthy: A Crash-Course
By Ryan Fightmaster | HealthCorps Coordinator 2012 – 2014
You may be thinking, “Wait, there has never been a harder time to be healthy,” and you would be right. But, the overwhelming force of this moment is the reason to be healthier, now. If we invest in our health when it’s most difficult, we become a better version of ourselves and assume responsibility in helping everyone get to the other side (or at least you may cope better with being around your parents 24 hours per day).
To steal a basketball metaphor, we are all “off our spot” and out of our comfort zone. Routine is gone. Expectations are unfulfilled. New proof appears daily that we have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. And because of this, creating a new habit doesn’t have the same activation energy (a reference to the chemistry class you’re trying to understand from your bedroom now). Habits are normally difficult to modify because of routine and the normal triggers of our environment, but now those are gone! This means we can actually change our lives, now.
Where do we start? After scrolling through my feed or reading news, it becomes harder to know what to do next. Without a compass, we get stuck in the anxious replays of the latest coronavirus statistic or development, becoming paralyzed or returning to distraction. Our compass doesn’t lie externally or on Netflix, unfortunately. The compass is found in our purpose. Asking myself repeatedly, “How can I change for the better from this?” has revealed ways to take constructive action in my life, family, and community.
If this motivation to change is directed toward health, it’s helpful to have guideposts to track the changes. I use five guideposts: Purpose, Relationships, Food, Movement, and Sleep. When we start feeling aimless or “off our spot”, it helps to look at each guidepost for direction on where we can improve. The deficit usually reveals itself and we can dedicate more attention to that area.
Focusing energy on the aspects of our life we control is key, because it decreases uncertainty (fear). Below is a list of ideas in each guidepost I’ve been exploring with my patients, with the goal of becoming more centered in the crisis.
- How will this tragedy be personally meaningful? Will we find out something new about ourselves? Will we improve our communities? Will we be more connected with the people around us?
- Silence often helps us link more deeply to our instincts and helps outside noise settle. Apps like HeadSpace (free for the next year if you work in healthcare) Calm, and Relax are helpful for mindfulness and breathing exercises.
- Double-down on a hobby or find a new one (puzzles, writing, drawing, or coding). Engaging in constructive and creative projects helps us decompress and be ready to deal with what comes next.
- Staying connected with our group of friends is important, but there’s a difference in the options. Notice the level of connection with your group if you scroll, watch, and like their content, or if you FaceTime or play a game together.
- Schedule hangouts on the calendar. Most of us have a significant difference in our evenings and weekends. Watch Netflix together. Play a card game together. Play your favorite video game together.
- Check in with yourself throughout the crisis, understanding if the isolation has reached a point where you may need someone to speak with. States and cities have established mental health hotlines (NY residents can call 1-844-863-9314 for an online appointment) and outpatient psychiatric clinics have converted to video or phone visits for new patients. This is marathon, not a sprint, and having another support member on your crew can be helpful for anyone.
- The quality of the food we eat usually indicates our level of stress. Gauge how much sugar or caffeine you’re consuming, as we look to those foods in stressful periods.
- Remember hydration. As we navigate stressful days we often forget about the most essential nutrient, water.
- If you find yourself repeatedly back in the kitchen looking for any available food source, find whatever you’re looking for and don’t buy it again! Having healthy snacks (oranges, berries, trail mix, baby carrots, hummus, granola bars, or pretzels) is key, because whatever is available will be consumed, and when we’re stressed all roads lead back to the kitchen.
- Carve out time early in the day for a walk, run, or yoga. Exercise early in the day can lead to increased productivity later in the day.
- Free workouts are everywhere online. Search Instagram or Facebook for local CrossFit gyms, yoga studios, or barre classes providing classes.
- Sunlight! If your activity can be done in the appropriate social distance, try to do it outside.
- Sleep is the great amplifier. Whatever we do, we do it better if we sleep close to 8 hours.
- The body naturally pushes sleep back when it can. If you are going to sleep later and later, find something you enjoy and schedule it for the morning.
- As the old Chinese proverb goes, “If a friend needs you to like or view their video past 10PM, are they really a friend?” Create space away from the phone screen at night, mainly because the longer we hold a bright screen to our eyes the more it pushes our sleep back. Here is a link for an iPhone hack to eliminate all blue light if you have to use the phone once the sun goes down.
Try checking in with each guidepost once per week, sensing if an element of control becomes helpful in adjusting to the uncertainty of school or work from home. There’s no “right” way to do this moment, just our own way.
Ryan Fightmaster is a resident physician in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. Currently, he is a fellow in the Integrative Psychiatry Institute, where he studies how mind, body, and lifestyle impact mental health. He proudly completed two years as a HealthCorps Coordinator at ASTEC Charter Schools in Oklahoma City, where his students taught him the power of meaningful work.