“Stay safe, stay healthy!”

For many, this has become the new sign-off of choice. And while we all now know the best practices to stay safe — wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and social distancing — staying healthy during the pandemic has become increasingly difficult. Beyond contracting the virus, the disruptions caused to daily life by COVID-19 can also be detrimental to our health and overall wellness.

Being unable to go the gym regularly or eating too much take-out are some patient concerns seen by primary care physicians, said Ramon Cancino, MD, MS, FAAFP, medical director of primary care for UT Health Physicians. While some gyms have reopened, many people still feel they are unsafe. And now with the intensity of the summer heat, some have found it difficult to maintain a regular exercise regimen outside of the gym.

“We do a lot of talking with patients around creating a new normal for themselves as it relates to their physical activity,” said Dr. Cancino. He suggests modifying routines, like going for walks in the morning or evening when it is less hot, or finding videos for home workouts that don’t require equipment.

Maintaining or establishing healthy habits is especially important now because it is known that those who are obese or have high blood pressure typically have poorer outcomes if they contract COVID-19. There has been an increased interest in weight loss among patients who may have not regularly exercised or had healthy routines in place, Dr. Cancino said. But now is a great time to start.

“This is an opportunity to look at your lifestyle and develop new healthy habits,” Dr. Cancino said.

For best results in making a change, he recommends connecting with a friend or loved one to stay motivated and help set goals. He also urges the perspective of a whole lifestyle change and staying away from fad diets.

“Lifestyle change is so important,” he said. “You go from just a habit or a diet to something that becomes part of how you live your life.”

Restrictions and worries of COVID-19 have also caused many people to delay their routine health care, said Johnna Nerios, MHA, BSN, RN, director of practice operations for UT Health Physicians. Fears of leaving the house or entering clinics have caused some people to put off important visits, like immunizations for children or wellness check-ups for those with chronic conditions.

“We can do video visits, but we do need to see them once in a while,” said Nerios. “The doctors need to do a thorough exam, patients need to get blood work or get their eyes checked. All these things are getting delayed for many people, but that could have lasting negative impacts.”

However, with proper masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing, a wellness visit with a physician is safe, she said, and should be resumed with the same frequency as usual.

With the increase of stress due to uncertainty, isolation and interruptions to plans and schedules, mental well-being is also at risk during this time.

“Stress affects everyone differently, but we are now dealing with a lot of the same concerns,” said Kathryn Kanzler, PsyD, ABPP, clinical health psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “It is so important to put in extra time right now to take care of ourselves, which is typically the opposite of what we usually do when we get stressed.”

Reactions to stress in our lives can manifest in many ways. Trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, low energy, feeling moody or irritable and snapping at loved ones are just some ways stress can alter our health and behavior, said Dr. Kanzler. And right now, these reactions are very normal.

“People are stressed and tired, and that’s expected at this point,” Dr. Kanzler said.

However, for some people, it may be more than stress. Being so anxious that work becomes impossible, having trouble with relationships or breaking connections with people are warning signs to look out for, she said, noting that many existing mental health issues are being exacerbated during this time.

To reduce stress, Dr. Kanzler recommends taking an important first step: identifying what is meaningful in life. It sounds simple, but for many, the stress of just trying to get through the day can distract from what’s meaningful, she said.

“It’s very critical that we hang on to the things that are most important to us and try to find ways to connect with them, even if we have to get creative in doing that,” she said.

It’s important for people to make modifications to the activities they usually enjoy doing, and not fall into the “all or nothing” approach, she said. And if it’s not possible to safely modify a favorite hobby or activity, now is a perfect time to try something new.

“I’ve seen a lot of that. People are trying gardening for the first time, doing projects around the home or doing online learning,” Dr. Kanzler said. “If you have the time to learn something new, that could be a great way to take care of your mental health.”

What wellness activities do you enjoy? Have you found creative ways to modify your healthy routines? Have you started a new hobby? We want to hear from you! Tell us your stories of healthy habits by submitting here.

*If you are feeling hopeless or having thoughts of suicide, you should seek additional help.

Texas Health and Human Services COVID-19 mental health support line: 833-986-1919

Crisis resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-2730-8255 (TALK)
  • The Center for Health Care Services crisis hotline: 210-223-7233 (SAFE)