In 2013-14, I spent nine months in the provincial capital of Latacunga, Ecuador, on a Fulbright grant. Social-cultural norms meant that daily life had a lot in common with today’s “shelter in place” mandates. Here I share what I learned, and how to best embrace this “new normal.”
Part 3: Physical Health
When I first heard “stay inside” I freaked out. Without exercise or healthy food or sunlight, I was convinced I was going to have a total breakdown.
I was wrong! Maintaining physical health while sheltering in place in Illinois–and also in Latacunga–turned out easier than under normal circumstances. Here are my tips:
A note: I am NOT a doctor and this is NOT medical advice. Please follow the instructions of your actual doctors and therapists and nutritionists and the CDC. I am sharing anecdotes relevant to at-home self-care, which does NOT replace medical care!
Think about it: What do I REALLY want to put in my body?
This sounds trite, but listen to your body. Pay attention to the signals your body sends your brain about how much energy, sodium, caffeine, alcohol, and water it really needs, versus what you’re used to feeding it.
Switching up your routine means your stimuli and chemical expenditures are naturally going to change. Don’t be afraid to experiment with more or less of something you’re used to gulping down.
If you’re any Chicagoan I know, your reaction to the pandemic and social distancing was probably, “screw toilet paper, I need to hoard alcohol. Tons of alcohol. That’s how we survive blizzards, which is basically what this is, right?”
Strangely, my alcohol craving drops to basically zero when I have no social obligations. Even when I had work stress, I never wanted alcohol. Before I started working in corporate America, I exclusively drank socially. I stopped drinking during my Fulbright except during parties where I matched married women drink for drink (they would barely get buzzed). In fact, the couple of times I tried to “have a beer after work” I got sick and couldn’t finish it.
Tip: try not drinking (or smoking) at the times you usually do. Give it an hour. Have tea or fruit instead. Work on your side hustle or talk on the phone. Do you still want it after an hour, or have you forgotten about it? Does your brain feel better or worse?
After working remotely at my current job (during our busiest season, mind you!) for a full week, I can assure you that my alcohol consumption has halved. Yes, halved. Just from not dealing with the El, my coworkers walking up to my desk all the time, or any in-person social obligations. It’s got me thinking that introverted streak is bigger than I thought….
On the flip side of the coin—I’ve found I still really need caffeine. No matter how much I sleep or what I’m up to, I can’t say no to a cup of Joe or pack-a-punch tea in my first hour awake. I’ve been known to use coffee as an antidepressant during long Chicago winters when vitamin D isn’t as readily available, and this March I’m definitely indulging that habit.
Tip: to avoid over-doing it with your favorite caffeinated beverage, switch them up every couple of days. For example, stick to green tea on weekends, and save the Intelligentsia for the weekdays…and the Monster for Friday night Twitch tournaments.
I don’t care who you are—everyone needs sunlight, every day. In Ecuador I got it walking around campus, doing laundry on my patio, or taking walks to the bakery down the street. It is easy to forget about when sheltering-in-place and trying to socially distance.
Tip: Make it a priority to go for a walk around noon every day. Set a timer, go even if you’re being really productive inside. Around the block is fine. Aside from the sunlight, the stimuli of moving around and the environment outside your apartment will do you a world of good.
I have terrible insomnia in Chicago. I did not in Ecuador. This past week working remotely, and going to bed when my body wanted to—the insomnia disappeared. Just because I didn’t have to worry about getting to work on time.
Tip: As much as your work schedule allows, now might be a great time to let your body sleep when it wants to. Think you’re a night owl? Be one. Morning person? Get up at dawn, go to bed at 8. Nap person? Nap away. Who’s going to judge you? You might feel better than you ever have without outside obligations messing up your circadian rhythm.
My need for water is always astronomically higher than the people around me. In Ecuador, fresh water that a gringo can drink without getting instant food poisoning wasn’t always readily available; furthermore, as Ecuadorians tend to drink less water than US Americans, restrooms were also not readily available. I boiled my own in my house and carried as much as I could with me, but I often ran out. What I learned was I could balance out my sodium intake with my water intake and actually retain more water. In situations where I knew there wouldn’t be any bathrooms, I used Coca-cola (full of sodium!) to “hydrate” or just keep my salt balance steady.
Tip: It’s easy to get dehydrated or feel dizzy when you’re drinking a lot of caffeine and staring at screens. (I just got a killer migraine from, yes, too much screen time.) Drink water, yes, but make sure you’re eating right to maintain your electrolyte balance and keep carb-to-protein ratio and vegetables steady too.
This sounds horrifying, but seriously observe and calibrate your calorie intake vs. output. If you’re staying home instead of commuting, you might need fewer calories. If you’re working from your bed instead of standing up and walking around conference rooms, that’s a material difference. For me personally, it’s really important for me to avoid feeling “hyper”—specifically the spike and drop associated with sugar.
Human bodies metabolize stress in wildly different ways. When I’m stressed about a social thing—say, a toxic work environment—my body eats itself alive and I lose weight. (Please don’t try this at home, it tends to come with horrible depression.) Meanwhile, if I’m in a socially stable situation, like a healthy relationship, I gain weight and become “fat and happy.” But if you flip the type of stress, my body will do the opposite—work stress about hours and deadlines will prompt me to stress-eat, and actually gain weight instead! Meanwhile, I have friends who experience the opposite. They gain weight when the stressors are out of their control, and lose weight when they can “work themselves to death.” Can’t win!
Something that helped me account for this in Ecuador was adopting Ecuadorian eating habits (and firmly rejecting others). Ecuadorians were big on pork fat and confusing carbs with vegetables. (A typical meal was pasta, potatoes, and bread on the side…don’t ask). They were also big on only consuming fruit in juice format with about 19 cups of sugar. It took some experimentation, but after “listening to my body” and what made me feel good hours and days later, I was able to pick and chose my way into healthy eating.
For sheltering in place, I recommend the following:
Increase fat intake. It sounds crazy—but fat fills you up. It stops you from snacking. For my body, fat is “slow burn” energy, meaning I will still feel energetic all day if I have a fatty meal at midday. In Ecuador, I didn’t have a choice—lunch was always decadent, with 2-3 types of animal fat incorporated into the soups and entrees. Once I stopped trying to fight it and let my body figure out how to respond, I felt a lot better.
Tip: One of my favorite “healthy eating” tricks is to make a bacon-fat breakfast sandwich in the morning—fry bacon, then fry your egg and toast in the leftover grease in the pan. Not only does it taste amazing, but I am not hungry til 5pm.
Watch carb/sugar intake. If you’re not walking to work or transit, you probably don’t need half the carbs you’re used to eating. If you don’t expunge them somehow by keeping your “steps” constant, they might make you spike and drop, which can be pretty bad for mental health as well as physical.
Tip: Try an open-face sandwich, or just halving the amount of rice / pasta you might normally eat. Arranging your plate helps a lot with this. When I eat spaghetti I try to take half of what I want, and then PILE on the sauce and vegetables, so my plate winds up looking much bigger—just it’s proportionally more sauce than pasta.
I also try tricking myself into thinking vegetables are actually carbs. Spaghetti squash is great for this! I also lay down a bed of spinach under eggs or beans and rice to turn meals into fiber-rich “burrito bowls.”
Snack on nuts, seeds, and fruit before you reach for the chips and candy. Let’s face it: we are all going to be snacking a LOT more since we’re just sitting in our houses on piles of food. If you want to train yourself to like healthy snacks instead of donuts—maybe now is the time to try it!
Tip: leave a bag of sunflower seeds or oranges near your work space so you subconsciously munch on them when the Snack Attack strikes. Carrots and hummus are great too.
All “best practices aside”—I am a tremendous advocate of emotional eating. Emotional eating is the epitome of listening to your body. If you’re craving salt, your body probably needs salt. Eat that bag of popcorn, just drink a glass of water too since you are also likely dehydrated. If you’re craving brownies, make the dang brownies and lick the bowl. Your body/mind probably needs a dose of theobromine. The more you cave to your desires and pay attention to the outcome, the more you will know about yourself, and the better you’re be able to grease the machine—and feel good while doing it.
Exercise, exercise, exercise
When I moved to Latacunga, I was most worried about getting enough exercise. I knew I wasn’t going to have gym access, and I wasn’t sure what social norms and infrastructure around exercise would be there.
I’m one of those freaks who’s addicted to cardio. Exercise is my main mental-health crutch—I’ve been using endorphins as a free antidepressant/anti-anxiety med for 15 years. If I’m not sweating 20-30 minutes a day, my brain short circuits and I’m distracted, angry, and basically nonfunctional.
Obviously everyone is scrambling to figure this out with the shelter in place mandates. Much like now, I found new exercise routines that made sense in my new culture and environment.
But my gym is closed!
So what? Do you think the human body evolved to expend all energy on a treadmill or on the weight bench?
Nah, our bodies love to move around outside. Benefits of being forced out of your gym and into home/outdoor workouts:
- Nature deprivation – University of Illinois Professor Ming Kuo has shown that city folks’ social-emotional health can be affected by how much “nature” you see regularly. Check out her work. Either way—seeing some birds and some sprouting trees while you get your workout in can’t hurt you!
- “Applied” strength training. Maybe you can’t benchpress, but you can carry patio furniture up and down your apartment staircase. Do squats holding a folding chair over your head. Another plus: this kind of strength is actually useful!
- Breaking your routine will force you to focus on areas that you typically avoid—common culprits like Core and Stretching that you don’t need a gym for. Work on your six pack and your flexibility—your back will thank you later.
- Do something actually useful with your physical energy. On your “off” days—use that energy to deep clean the bathroom or the kitchen floors (it’s exhausting). Or if you can, do yard work or bring groceries to your elderly neighbor. You don’t have to call it exercise to make it exercise.
In Latacunga I started running at dawn, because that’s the only time Latacunguenos went running. In order to maintain the endorphin dose while avoiding getting repetitive stress injuries, I came up with my own Best Practices for Exercising without a Gym:
Space it out!
Don’t do the same exercises every day. Even if you don’t get bored, you’ll get injured.
With running the only viable option for cardio, I have to ration my cardio more than anything else. I regularly get repetitive motion injuries in my knees and shins from “overrunning” or continuing to run when my form is bad, I’m too tired, I didn’t let myself fully heal, or just because I’m chasing that endorphin high.
If you can—switch up running with biking and walking. Spring for a Divvy subscription, and bike in the traffic-free streets for 20-30 minutes. I’m also trying those infamous burpees and pilates videos–DownDog is free until Apr 1, and the “level 2 full body” HIIT kicked my butt yesterday.
Protein powder is your friend
Weird thing to say in a quarantine post, but true. Protein powder takes the edge off of soreness and helps your body recuperate from new and repetitive exercise. It also makes you less hungry and less likely to emotionally eat.
Don’t forget your physical therapy
If you’ve ever been to physical therapy, now’s the time to resurrect those floor exercises you were assigned five years ago to do four times a week. Physical therapy is designed to help compensate for your body’s weaknesses and strengthen it to prevent or heal injury. I’m trying to incorporate it into a daily routine.
In conclusion: You’re in a relationship with your physical body. Treat it like you would a significant other, or a pet, or a relative. Sure, it annoys the crap out of you sometimes, and it makes you crazy and does illogical things, but it’s a living thing that you feed and take care of anyway and you want the best for.
Shelter-in-place may seem like a bummer, but there’s lots of opportunity to make the best of it. Best of luck, Chicago!