In a time when our own health and the health of our loved ones are at stake, it is of the utmost importance that we reduce opportunities to spread disease by staying home and keeping our distance from anyone who does not share our dwelling. Not only has mandatory isolation left many people out of work and without an income, but it has also left many people feeling emotionally high and dry, for the biological reason that humans are social animals. Without an office, school, gym, or workplace to visit, or coworkers and friends outside of work to interact with, many of us have already begun to feel lonely and purposeless in addition to worrying about our financial and physical health. Those with children may also feel overwhelmed about suddenly being responsible for their education and entertainment while trying to maintain an atmosphere of calm and safety in the home. If you are feeling down or anxious, you are not alone.
What can we do? Most importantly, we must try to maintain a positive mindset and approach the lifestyle change with proactivity. We have some suggestions below about ways to be proactive about:
- protecting our physical health with certain activities and exercises
- staying socially connected from a distance
- creating new routines that give us purpose and stave off boredom
Maintaining Health at Home
Wash hands well but don’t dry them out! First, we’ve all heard about how important it is to keep our hands clean and away from our faces to reduce our chances of illness. But what is the best way to keep hands clean without destroying our skin? Repeated hand washing with harsh soaps and drying chemicals can leave our skin sore, dry, and cracked, which actually makes room for new, increased bacterial colonization .
Make sure you’re taking care of your hands while staying clean. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer can kill most bacteria and viruses, but it doesn’t kill everything, and after use, everything on your hands (dead and alive) stays on your hands. Additionally, if you have any dirt or food on your hands, the fats and proteins reduce the killing power of the alcohol, so you may just be smearing germs around rather than sanitizing.
Old fashioned soap and water may not kill viruses or bacteria, but it does a great job of lifting them from your skin to be carried away by running water. Hands should be lathered for a full 30 seconds with soap and cool or warm water to rid your skin of 99.9% of bacteria, and viruses are washed away too. Hot water is actually not recommended as it is more drying to your skin and does not significantly increase the efficacy of handwashing at temperatures we can comfortably stand. Drying your hands after a wash is important too, as damp hands are more likely to encourage the multiplication and spread of germs .
Choosing an antibacterial soap is not likely to keep you safer or cleaner. Our greatest concern today is with a virus, which is not targeted by anti-bacterial ingredients, and there is concern that over-use of antibacterial chemicals just leads to the mutation and resistance of bacteria, without reducing their numbers .
What about the dry, cracked hands that result from diligent handwashing? They’re actually a danger too. Cracks in the skin and long fingernails are great places from germs to hide out, multiply, and avoid being washed away. Keep your nails trimmed and follow your washing and drying ritual with a rich moisturizer or salve. Be aware, however, that many moisturizers contain oils and proteins that may reduce the effectiveness of hand sanitizer in the same way food and dirt can.
You can also support the moisture in your skin from the inside out by drinking lots of water and taking a supplement that contains hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a major structural component of skin. It has a high water retaining ability and plays a central role in both the hydration and elasticity of skin .
Keep your body moving
There are plenty of ways to get regular exercise from your living room. And you should! Research shows that people who engage in regular exercise experience better health-related quality of life, better functional capacity, and better mood states . All of these things are going to be important to keep you healthy, happy, and home. With the additional pressure on our medical system, exercise may be a way you can prevent future hospital trips too. Regular exercise reduces the risk of multiple physical disorders and is therapeutic for physical disorders ranging from cardiovascular diseases to diabetes to prostate cancer . Exercise has also been known to offer both preventive and therapeutic psychological benefits, such as the reduced risk of depression and neurodegenerative disorders and the therapeutic improvement of depression, anxiety, eating, addictive, and body dysmorphic disorders. Exercise can also help to reduce chronic pain and age-related cognitive decline .
Scientists think that the therapeutic benefits of exercise may come from changes in serotonin metabolism, improved sleep, and endorphin release (think “runner’s high”) . Psychologically, exercise appears to cause enhanced self-efficacy and self-esteem while reducing negative thoughts and rumination . Exercise also actually increases brain volume (both gray and white matter), vascularization, and blood flow may protect and encourage the growth of nerves, and upregulates similar neurotrophic factors targeted by antidepressant medications .
Now you know why you should exercise, how can you do it at home without equipment or a lot of space? There are a plethora of options available online, as long as you have internet access and enough space to comfortably do a jumping jack or lay down a yoga mat. YouTube is an excellent resource of free videos to lead you through all types of workouts from cardiovascular high-intensity impact training (HIIT) to really get you sweating, yoga and pilates to get you stretching and strengthening, and dance fitness and Zumba if you like to shake it. If a class requires equipment you don’t have, get creative! A beach towel will suffice if you don’t own a yoga mat and the canned goods stacked in your pantry make great hand weights.
If you are missing your regular exercise instructors, find out if they offer online classes. Many fitness instructors are struggling at this time too after having to cancel their regular classes. They may ask a fee or donation but offer either videos or live interactive classes using a webcam. Check your favorite gym or studio’s website or social media pages for more information.
Although the best way to stay safe and prevent the spread of disease is to stay home, our physical and mental health both benefit from a little fresh air too. Many of us also have four-legged friends that cannot get their exercise from a yoga video. When out and about, there is a suggested six-foot rule for the berth we should give anyone we pass, but is that buffer really enough? With a new disease, there isn’t enough data to say for sure. If you must leave your house, try to choose areas where you’ll not only have six feet but most of the trail or sidewalk to yourself. If you pull up at a trailhead and the parking area is populated by more than a few cars, find somewhere else to hike. If you do pass strangers, heed the six-foot warning and resist petting their dogs. While dogs may be immune to some human viruses, they can still carry germs on their fur from an infected human like any other surface.
How can I stay feeling connected with physical distance?
Exercise alone isn’t going to protect us from the psychological effects of isolation. Whether you consider yourself an extrovert or introvert, we all need to interact with other humans (to some degree) to help maintain our sanity. As such, it is so important during times of physical separation to figure out ways to feel connected to others without meeting in the same place.
Talking on the telephone is a great start. Try adding a list of “people to check in with” to your calendar or to-do list every day. Mix it up with friends and family members and think about who may be in need of your support. People in your life who live alone (or have physical or other health challenges) might require some extra attention to feel cared for in times like these, and you will feel good knowing you reached out.
If you have access to a webcam or camera phone, video calls are even better than voice-only talks. Being able to read someone’s facial cues and body language in addition to hearing their voice adds levels of connection missed by using the telephone only. There are multiple platforms that offer free video conferencing, either one-on-one or for a group. Try hosting a virtual dinner party or a happy hour via webcam! Invite a few of your friends to eat dinner or enjoy a fun beverage in front of their webcams for an intimate party with zero physical interaction and zero risks of sharing disease.
Although additional screen time may pose its own problems, social media platforms are also a great way to stay connected with a wide network, without committing much time to individuals. Social media challenges like the #see10do10 pushup challenge, asking for friends to post silly pictures of their stay-at-home outfits or sharing moments of gratitude and positivity all help us see into the lives of the people we care for and feel less alone in our current climate.
Why not send some old fashioned snail mail? Ask someone, or a few people, to be your pen pals. The USPS is still running and will send your mail as long as it has proper postage. They are taking extra safety precautions handling envelopes and packages, and you can wash your hands after reading your letters to reduce your risk of picking anything up off the paper.
How can I stay focused (and/or keep my kids focused) working from home?
This one is especially hard. Even if you are one of the fortunate who has managed to maintain employment with the caveat of working from home, your days may look a lot different now. At first, it may feel like a bit of a vacation with no commute, a more relaxed clock-in time in the morning that makes sleeping in an easy temptation, and if you don’t have to see co-workers, why shower, get dressed or brush your hair? You may also find yourself taking extra breaks and getting caught up in the distractions of home. Noticing that the laundry is piling up or the dishes need scrubbing may nag at you and tear you away from the work that pays the bills. Not to mention if you have roommates, a partner, pets, or kids at home, forget it! Distractions abound. Unfortunately, these unfocused, disorganized days are not only less productive, but they can also take a toll on your mental and physical health. What you need is a designated workspace and a realistic routine you can stick to.
There are actually a number of scientifically-supported reasons to establish a healthy work-from-home routine, and maintaining as much of your old routine as possible from your regular work days may help you get into the groove much faster.
Routines increase predictability, and predictability alleviates stress and anxiety about the unknown, as well as the symptoms that can accompany stress and anxiety. Often, when we have a workplace outside of the home, our days are planned out for us. We arrive at a certain time, leave at a certain time, and in between, there are meetings, periods of focused work time, and breaks in between to feed and relieve ourselves. When home and work are no longer separated, it is much easier to fall out of this routine and fall into procrastination, losing touch with motivation and focused momentum.
The need for routine has been associated with several mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, addiction, and depression (among others) . Staying organized and knowing what to expect makes room for the conscious work of counteracting destructive thoughts and symptoms of a mental health condition. One particular study found that an active daytime routine also leads to a healthier sleep cycle, which in turn is associated with better mental health and a reduced risk of developing emotional difficulties .
Choose a place in your home where you can comfortably work and return to that same place every work day. Choose a start and stop time, when you will take breaks, and talk to your housemates or family about your expectations for interactions and noise during work hours. Get up and change your clothes for work as you would have in the past, maintaining a part of your routine that sets your brain into work mode. Plan time in your day for exercise, house chores, connecting with others, and self-care/relaxation. If you plan for it, you’ll be less likely to interrupt your work time or procrastinate with those distractions.
Routine is important for kids too. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that family routines help to moderate impulsiveness and reduce oppositional behavior in children . Having a routine allows children to trust and feel safe, as they too know what to expect from you and their day. With that said, you may notice that a sudden change in routine may spark some behavioral changes in your kids. Do what you can to establish a new, flexible routine while you are all home together, maintaining as much of their “old normal” as possible. Try to maintain wake up times, mealtimes, and bedtimes. Perhaps go for a walk when it would have been time for the school commute, and then start a planned activity when you return home, as they would enter school and start the school day. If you have space to keep a designated workspace for each child like their desk at school, that may help maintain the physical cue for when they should be focused and working.
Of course, keeping everyone safe and healthy is the priority right now. Try not to worry about how much children are learning in comparison to their classmates, or that you have teacher-approved lesson plans prepared all day, every day. Why not take this opportunity to teach your kids important life skills that help the whole family. Do laundry, cooking, and cleaning together. Try sharing a passion of yours with them. Something that can be revisited daily or weekly as an addition to the routine like a watercolor painting, listening to old records, sewing, or photography. Practice gratitude, patience, and grow together.
- Harvard Health Letter. “The handiwork of good health”. Harvard Medical School. Published: January, 2007. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/The_handiwork_of_good_health
- Masson, F. “Skin hydration and hyaluronic acid.” Annales de dermatologie et de venereologie. Vol. 137. 2010.
- Penedo, Frank J., and Jason R. Dahn. “Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity.” Current opinion in psychiatry 18.2 (2005): 189-193.
- Walsh, Roger. “Lifestyle and mental health.” American Psychologist 66.7 (2011): 579.
- Plata, Mariana. “The Power of Routines in Your Mental Health”. Psychology Today. Oct 04, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-gen-y-psy/201810/the-power-routines-in-your-mental-health