Staying Healthy While Social Distancing

First and foremost, I hope that despite the challenges that coronavirus is presenting us all with, you have your health and are generally doing well. If that’s the case for you, as it is for me, let’s take a moment to be thankful. Here in NYC, life for many has been shaken and tossed upside down. For those of us working in gyms, it went from trying to keep equipment and other “high contact” surfaces clean and disinfected, to shutting the doors and trying to figure out how to run virtual fitness classes and/or offer at-home programming for our members and clients overnight. It’s been quite a ride. People in other professions haven’t even been that lucky, and many have found themselves barely working or out of work entirely. It’s pretty much the same for all of us (or will be in a minute), both here in the US and abroad.

Since it looks like we’ll all be practicing social distancing for the coming weeks if not months (you are social distancing, right?), maybe now is a good time to talk about the elephant in many living rooms. Your relationship with food. 

You trade exercise for food. 

This is pretty common and I’d bet that most of us have done it at some point. I have. The story we tell ourselves is “calories burned equals calories earned”. That if you’ve crushed a hard workout you’ve now earned the right to crush a big meal. It might be the post-Murph burger (or two) and a beer (or three) or adding a stack of pancakes to your omelete after a particularly tough squat session. When your first thought of that meal comes after said workout, when you eat a bit more food than you might have because you’re in fact actually hungrier, then it’s probably not an issue. You do need food to recover and if you listen to your body it will usually guide you straight.  If, however, you find yourself planning ahead to train harder in order to eat with impunity, it might be a behavior worth reevaluating.

The math never works out and operating on a “food as reward” system usually leaves people feeling like shit. Either physically when they’re in a food coma or emotionally when they feel they didn’t train hard enough to earn the meal. When they see their gains and not “gainz”. Which can lead down the dangerous path of exercising even more in an effort to see some abs. Regardless of what crappy calories the super fit person shows themself crushing post-workout while flashing those 6-pack abs in those paid instagram posts, it’s a lie. Or they’re a genetic anomaly and you are not. In either case you’re not getting paid to exercise, and you might enjoy the activity more if you committed to doing just enough of it to support your health and sanity. 

I think this is still perfectly sound advice. 

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar.” – Greg Glassman

But the very next line often gets forgotten.  

“Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.” – also Greg Glassman

That second part is key, I think, for your health. Consider that maybe you don’t need special programming with more assistance exercises, fasted cardio, or any fancy diet. 

Though from a slightly different point of view (if you’re part of the full carnivore crowd, skip on to the next paragraph), I also really like this quote and think it relays the same message.

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – Michael Pollan

So instead of stressing out on how you can possibly get enough “training” done while your gym is closed, experiment what it’s like to do less. Eat because you’re hungry and to satiety, not because you “earned it”. Sit down and enjoy a meal for the sustenance it provides. Enjoy the flavor and texture. Bonus points for sitting down to the meal with another human, either in person or zoomed into your laptop.

You eat your emotions.

Also reaaaal common. We’re afraid, anxious, stressed out, stir crazy, and bored. And we would much rather feel good. Eating yummy food (especially high calorie fatty and/or sugary stuff) releases dopamine which gives us exactly that, for a while, until it doesn’t. Then we’re like an addict who keeps going back for more. And there’s lots of evidence to suggest that food can be truly addictive because of that dopamine response. In fact, opiates are some of the most powerful ways humans have found to stimulate a dopamine response in our brains, and you know how that goes. To take a step back, I’m not suggesting that a habit of grabbing a handful of something every time you pass through the kitchen is on par with illicit drug use. However, whether you’re binging on potato chips and cookies, protein bars and shakes, or almonds and apples, I do suggest asking this simple question next time you catch yourself in the act: 

“Am I hungry, or is there an emotion behind this?”

NO judgement. I’ve been there myself more than once, and not just in the past few weeks. Sometimes you just need to chill. Food is one way to do that, but there are others. Exercise, sleep, meditation, deep breathing, sex, and whetever else relaxes you can help. A practice worth trying here is to place a post-it near the food stuff. 

“Need to Chill?”

  • Read a book
  • Color or draw
  • Do a puzzle
  • Meditate
  • Stretch
  • Do yoga
  • Journal
  • Play with your dog/cat
  • Go for a walk (bonus points if you can see trees or water, 2x bonus if you have a dog alongside you.) 

These are just ideas, so get creative and make your own list. Hey! That could actually be your first activity next time you catch yourself about to have a “snaccident”. 

Be honest, and also kind.

Eating like a kid on vacation when the world seems to be falling apart is an understandable way to cope. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And, it also doesn’t have to go on indefinitely. The gym will reopen at some point and you’ll come out the other side of this, hopefully more resilient. If any of the above rings true for you, here’s an opportunity to look in the mirror and admit it. Then instead of a slap on the wrist, take yourself by the hand and go for a walk.

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