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How to Be Healthy in a Pandemic: 3 Healthy Habits That Don’t Cost Extra

Learning how to be healthy is hard even without a pandemic going on in the background. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of us went into survival mode. Suddenly, exercise, food choices, and prioritizing emotional health felt not just challenging but unrealistic. People were dying; jobs were lost without warning. How was anyone supposed to find time to exercise or pay organic food prices? But living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be physically or financially draining. I personally used three tricks to lose weight and feel better in the midst of a government shutdown and global pandemic — and they didn’t cost more time or money than I was already spending prior to COVID-19.

Years from now, people will probably ask, “Where were you the day the world shut down?” And they’ll be referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll all have our answers memorized, along with anecdotes about our last social outing prior to the government-mandated stay-at-home order or our first adventure out into the real world once restrictions were slowly lifted. With more than 161 million reported cases and a staggering impact on our healthcare system, the global economy, and the way we operate as a society, the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt live in infamy for years to come.

As scientists and the clinical community have learned and rapidly responded to their new understanding of the coronavirus disease, every other industry and individual has had to adapt in lockstep. Parents became school teachers; a vacuum manufacturer started making ventilators; and, at one point, as much as 70 percent of American adults were working from home. As a society, we’ve had to rethink the way we do nearly everything. How we care for our bodies is no different.

Myth: Exercise and eating healthy is expensive. By incorporating these three healthy habits into my life, I was able to lose five pounds and gain more energy during the pandemic shutdown, and you can, too.

1. Walk Your Commute to Work (from Home)

In early 2020, I was spending 40 minutes on the road every morning and again every evening, Monday through Friday. My commute to work was my time to think, call family, or jam to my favorite Spotify playlist, but it was hardly a productive use of my time. When the Governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order for all of Florida, I became a full-time work-from-home employee. Suddenly, I was gifted 80 minutes of my weekday.

And I wasn’t alone. After the pandemic sent the US into lockdown, more than 40 percent of the American workforce was remote. According to the Census Bureau, the average American has a 26-minute commute to work, or they did pre-shutdown.

If you’re one of the many who make up the newly remote workforce, consider reallocating your morning drive to a morning workout. By walking around my neighborhood, circling back to my home office, I turned my morning commute into a new healthy habit.

Photo of bikers
A 30-minute weekday morning bike ride would add up to the 150 minutes of weekly activity recommended by the CDC.

Going for a weekday morning bike ride, walk, or jog would total 130 minutes of weekly physical activity for the average American worker. If you have recently found yourself working from home, consider converting your old driving commute time into a walk-to-work (from home) habit. Even if you always worked from home or are still heading into an office every day, you can still reap the benefits. Use the national average commute time as your starting point. A morning and evening walking commute of 26 minutes would add up to 260 minutes for the week — which experts say is ideal for weight loss!

2. Work Out While You Prepare to Dine In

With my new walk-to-work-from-home routine in place, I found myself naturally in a better mood and mental state. I slept better at night, and I had more energy throughout the day. Meanwhile, thousands of restaurants were shutting down, or closing their dining rooms, left and right. As someone who previously spent roughly $500 each month on food and dining out, I needed to adjust.

After several weeks of exorbitant bills from restaurant to-go orders and meal-delivery services (more on that next), my body missed quality food. Jaded by the same old menus and the same old post-meal energy drain, I decided to try cooking at home for a change. But, I added a twist: Using my 40 minutes previously allocated to my drive home from work, I would prep dinner and squeeze in a workout.

Below are examples of opportunities to work out while you’re making dinner:

  • While the oven is preheating
  • While you’re waiting for water to boil
  • As you’re monitoring a pot on the stovetop, stirring occasionally
  • During the bake time (20 minutes to an hour or more, depending on what you’re cooking!)

Here are my favorite exercises to incorporate into a meal-prep workout:

  • Squats and lunges
  • Push-ups against the counter
  • Bicep curls and tricep curls (Tip: Use canned goods as weights for added strength training!)
  • Jump rope in place (no rope required)

And I often finish off with a plank! Fun fact: By planking consistently, you’ll see marked improvements in posture, balance, flexibility, and metabolism — and you’ll prevent injury by working your arms, legs, and core.

You can incorporate simple bodyweight exercises, such as planks, squats, and Russian twists, into your everyday routines.

Here’s an example of how one might work out while making a roasted chicken breast and a side of their choice:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. During this time, alternate 60 seconds of squats and 60 seconds of push-ups against the counter. Use the oven timer as your workout timer. If you’re new to exercise, start with 15 seconds, and work your way up!
  2. Place the chicken in a baking pan, brush with oil, and top with your desired seasoning.
  3. Cook for about 45 minutes: Your cook-time workout should consist of a mix of cardio and strength training. Because this recipe calls for a longer bake time, you can also fit in some flexibility and balance training.
    • Air jump rope in place for 60 seconds.
    • Do 30 bicycle crunches.
    • Do walking lunges across your living room and back
    • Use cans to do 10 bicep curls, then 10 overhead tricep curls
    • Repeat the steps above at least three times! Then, prepare your side dish such as broccoli or sweet potatoes.
  4. Let the chicken cool for five minutes: Now is your time to plank until exhaustion and reap the benefits.

You’re now ready to wash up and serve. Enjoy your yummy meal and post-workout vibes.

A Mediterranean diet is recommended for individuals who are at risk for or already have type 2 diabetes; however, the anti-inflammatory foods are beneficial for anyone who wants less joint pain, better heart health, or weight loss. Find more recipe ideas at the American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Food Hub. Lastly, try the MyFitnessPal blog for exercise inspiration.

3. Dine In More Nights Than You Dine Out

The first few weeks of the shutdown, I frequented virtually every nearby restaurant that offered carry-out service. I jokingly said I was single-handedly keeping the hospitality industry economy alive; but the element of truth to that wise-crack — the significant spike in my monthly food spending — stung. I was eating more calories, spending more, and putting more hidden chemicals into my body by eating out almost every day.

Fortunately, once I started my other two healthy habits, I was hooked on the energy boost. I loved the way my body felt, and I wanted more of that natural high. I resigned myself to eat out no more than three nights per week. That left me with four home-cooked, healthy dinners and my accompanying meal-prep workout routine.

The formula is simple: Make the healthy choice more often than you make the unhealthy choice (e.g., four nights of dining in versus three nights of dining out). However, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself slowly turning up the frequency on those healthy choices. The cost savings, calorie savings, and overall return on investment (e.g., improved skin, mood, sleep, etc.) is addicting.

Keep Healthy Habits For Life Post-COVID

During a time when, according to the internet (or the memes shared there), all of America was hiding from gyms and binging Netflix with a side of junk food, I lost five percent of my body weight. I didn’t slave away in a gym, starve myself, or even deprive my body of its favorite treats. I used the same minutes I had previously allocated to my work schedule, and I actually came away spending less money. The key was to find small opportunities to swap less-than-stellar habits with healthy ones. And you too can adopt similar habits and reap the benefits — through COVID-19 and beyond!

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