Thriving in the New Normal//

3 Strategies for Exercising More and Eating Healthier During COVID

Using vision science, we can teach ourselves to see our kitchens, calendars, and patterns of consumption in ways that improve our physical health.

Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

COVID-19’s quarantine mandates have stopped us in our tracks. Literally. A study published in November tracked 455,404 smartphone users from 187 countries found a 27% decrease in average daily steps taken within 30 days of the pandemic declaration. In the same vein, data scientists at Fitbit — the company that produces wearable exercise technology to track movement — found that when San Francisco and New York City went under shelter-in-place orders, residents showed a 20% decrease in the number of daily steps compared to that same week a year before. Italy saw daily step count decreases of 27% and Spain 38%.

No surprise, at the same time that people have been moving less, the scale has been ticking up. Of course, people have set goals to get back into shape, especially in the annual spirit of “this year’s the year” in early January. Indeed, about half of all Americans set New Year’s resolutions, Marist finds. And according to Google Trends search results, worldwide interest in losing weight doubled from the last week of December 2020 to the first two weeks of January 2021. But Strava, a top social networking app for runners, found when looking at over 800 million user-logged activities from over 98 million users in 2019, that most athletes’ activity drops well below regular levels just half-way through January. And COVID-19 is making physical even harder. Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report, released at the end of January 2021, showed that the United States’ use of parks, recreation, and retail — where people are likely to get their steps in — dropped by at least 25% compared to baseline. We’re moving less, gaining more, and giving up too soon on our best of intentions to increase health.

Worldwide, we are taking fewer steps as a result of COVID-19.

As quarantine restrictions and work-from-home mandates continue on, step counts are projected to stay low. But the weight gain the world has seen may not be inevitable. You have a whole lot more control than you might think. The key is to reengineer your environment and use the power of perception to your advantage. Here are three tactics for keeping the scale from ticking up.

Become your own accountant

Rather than relying on memory of what you eat and how much you move, track it. A study conducted by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research followed nearly 1,700 dieters. All maintained a healthy diet and exercised at least 30-minutes a day. Everybody lost weight — an average of 13 pounds. But those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. The visual summary of eating habits, calorie intake, and nutritional successes and missteps reduced mindless eating.

Really schedule your day

People prioritize the things they see on their calendar over what they try keep in mind. Scheduling appointments with ourselves to exercise can increase physical activity by helping us better schedule our time. Duke University professor and author of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely, reported that people spend time in the wrong ways, especially when they do not use their calendar for all things they want to get done in the day. He said in a Reddit thread, “One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity (like social media).” Ariely notes that for the vast majority of people, the most productive hours are those when we first wake up at the beginning of the day, and the true night owl is actually a rarity.

But we aren’t good at using those best hours well. We allocate our time poorly, in ways that don’t take advantage of the times when our energy and ability to focus is high. If at the end of the work-at-home day we have not yet done it, for most people they will not have the energy left for exercise. Put a workout on the calendar for those times your body is best able to take on the physical challenge, rather than waiting to fit it in when there is free time.  

Scheduling our exercise and meals can increase the odds of meeting our health goals.

Stock the kitchen for success

Visual environments — what appears inside the field of view — has direct effects on what we do, including what we eat. Take care to arrange your refrigerator and pantry in a way that encourages healthy choices. In a 2012 publication, Anne Thorndike and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital labeled food and beverages in the cafeteria according to their nutritional value. Green tags meant the most healthy, red for least. They also placed healthy options on shelves at eye level. Overall green-tag purchases increased and red tagged ones decreased. Specifically, looking at 1 million purchases before the visual changes, water constituted only 14% of beverage sales. But after water as green, its sales increased by over 25%; red-tagged sugary beverages decreased by 11%. Take a cue from this simple change and nudge healthier choices by curating the visual environments of your fridge and pantry shelves.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to place restrictions on everyday activities, suppressing the number of steps people get in during the day. But rather than accepting the impacts on health as inevitable, this may be an opportunity for innovation within our personal lives. During a health crisis that has added uncertainty to many aspects of our lives, it is still possible to take back control of what we eat and how much we move to improve our health.

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