The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to make a healthy change

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyday life for many people in both subtle and profound ways. Embracing pants without a belt, trying to bake smart – and maybe spending too much time sitting, either through virtual meetings or bingeing on Netflix.

For many people, these types of behavior, accompanied by constant pressures and limitations of this epidemic, are translated into kilograms gained and new or growing feelings of discomfort with the body image.

It may seem premature to think about tackling weight loss or body image while still dealing with the uncertainty and pressures of an ongoing pandemic. However, science has shown that living in the midst of disasters and chaos often results in a change of priorities in a person’s life and to think more about the importance of personal life. Science also reveals that life disruptions can be a good time to think about, and bring about, a change in habits.

I am a developmental psychologist and health coach. I have taught university students about mindfulness and motivation for the past 20 years, as well as lifelong physical and mental well-being. Behavioral scientists find that when these types of disturbances disrupt normal routines, it can be easier than ever to abandon unhealthy behaviors and replace them with positive changes in personal habits.

That said, this is not another article about how to lose weight. It’s not meant to induce knee-jerk reactions like chasing Jennifer Lopez’s behind or Chris Hemsworth-y lats.

Instead, I invite people to redefine the “good body” by better appreciating the functionality of the body – what it can do – rather than focusing too much on how it looks.

Celebrities are not good role models

According to Merriam-Webster, a vision is “a standard of perfection, beauty or excellence.”

However, respecting and appreciating the human body for what it can do, rather than how it looks or is compared to cultural stereotypes, can have a positive impact on body image. For example, behavioral scientists have found that exercising for health, pleasure and well-being is associated with positive body image and healthy eating habits, while negative body image is associated with exercising for appearance-related reasons.

There are physical benefits as well. For example, emphasizing fitness goals, rather than weight loss, has been shown to improve longevity. Scientists have also found that exercise can reduce an adult’s risk of severe COVID-19 and potentially life-threatening complications.

In addition to all this, as journalist Charles Duhigg reports in his book “The Power of Habit,” experts have found that exercise is a key habit that often supports the adoption of other good health behaviors, such as nutrition.

To successfully change an old habit for the better, it’s important to create an environment that supports the new goal – like choosing workout clothes the night before for an early morning walk or run.
Zing/Digital Vision Images via Getty Images

Appearance and accessibility

As a psychologist, I realize that we are an appearance-oriented culture. I am not suggesting that people ignore the principles of beauty.

Instead, I suggest that looking to other people to define your body image principles can be harmful. This is especially true when people choose icons of celebrities and social media influencers as their inspirations. For example, there is evidence that comparing one’s appearance to images of celebrities is associated with both body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

Research suggests that the most effective role models are people who identify with or share some similarities with. This makes it easier to set achievable goals, rather than focusing on the public images of celebrity icons. Again, it is important that the goals are real and work in people’s lives. It is also important that they avoid comparing themselves to people they know, because this can also lead to body dissatisfaction.

Setting achievable goals instead involves focusing on specific behaviors that one can commit to. For example, if someone sets a goal to go easy, they might plan to go to the gym for 30 minutes three times a week. If the vaccine fits pre-pandemic clothing, it may remove unhealthy snacks from the daily diet.

These are actions that people can directly control, while it is not clear how one can achieve the appearance or weight of a certain celebrity or friend.

A personal example

Determining one’s personal definition of the “ideal body” is not just a thought experiment. Understanding a person’s values ​​helps to set goals and establish habits in daily life to achieve them.

Using myself as an example: As a 48-year-old, my ideal physical condition includes being as strong as possible as I get older. I don’t want to feel or look skinny, so my workouts include resistance training – and some running to relieve stress. This is achievable because I appreciate the benefits of these activities.

To make sure I stick to my exercise regimen, I plan ahead so I know exactly how to fit it into my day rather than leaving it to chance and skipping it altogether or doing it too close to my bedtime, which disrupts my sleep.

For role models, I look to the behavior of other strong women — like the women of Girls Gone Strong, an organization that promotes women’s health and fitness — to inspire me to reach my goals.

Changing the context

Even after figuring out self-image values ​​and setting achievable goals, it can still be difficult to break old unhealthy habits. Wendy Wood, a psychologist at the University of California and a leading expert in this field, has found that many behaviors are automatically activated by being in a situation – an environment – that has a past relationship with that behavior. Furthermore, those associations are more important than one’s current goals.

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It means that achieving one’s body image and fitness goals involves taking a brisk walk every morning. Turning that into a habit means avoiding past behaviors — don’t put the coffee maker on for morning java, turn on the television or check the phone before a trip — and adopting new behaviors, like putting on the right clothes the night before and establishing a route ahead of time.

How to start? A fruitful first step would be to ask: How have the problems of the epidemic changed the values ​​of my life, my priorities and my attitude? The answers can be a good foundation for successfully making a healthy change in body image.

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