Health Agenda

Mental Health

Life after lockdown: How to change your daily routine

During isolation, many good habits and routines have changed or completely gone out the window. Here, we look at how to gently reintroduce positive habits around diet, exercise, sleep and mental health.

Now that restrictions are slowly beginning to lift in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s time to get back to normal life – or a new version of it, at least.

Maybe you’ve been enjoying cocooning at home and are reluctant to leave that bubble? Or perhaps you’re excited to get out and about again. Whichever category you fall into, it’s a good time to consider how you’ll transition and the new routines you’ll need to put in place.

In addition to continuing to practise social distancing, a focus on exercise habits, a nutritious diet, relaxing sleep routines and your mental health is just as important. We spoke with health and wellbeing experts to find out how to nourish and protect ourselves as we ease back into society.

Nourish your body

If you’ve let your healthy eating habits slip a bit during isolation, don’t worry – you’re not alone. In the past few months, online food and alcohol delivery services saw a huge spike in demand. But as we come into the cooler months, it’s a great time to prioritise our health, says Dr Juliana Chen, an accredited practising dietitian and senior lecturer at Macquarie University.

“With cold weather hitting us already, optimising our physical and mental health and the functioning of our immune system is really important,” she says. To maintain a healthy weight and ensure you’re getting enough nutrients, she suggests filling your shopping trolley with the following foods:

  • Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, kiwifruit, strawberries, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and capsicum
  • Oily fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, and unsweetened Greek yoghurt for nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamin D and protein
  • Complex carbohydrates, such as wholegrains and legumes. These are great sources of fibre to help your good gut bacteria flourish so they can also work to keep up your immune function.

In other words, stock up more on fresh wholefoods during these months. And keep packaged, processed foods – for example, chips, chocolates, biscuits, pastries, processed meats, frozen pizzas and pies – out of your trolley, pantry and fridge.

“Eating in this way also models a Mediterranean dietary pattern, which has been shown to reduce risk of depression by as much as 51% – important as we can often face winter blues in these months,” Dr Chen says.

Get moving

COVID-19 has also meant the closure of many gyms, yoga studios, health clubs, swimming pools and other sporting facilities. So how can we gradually start to build up our exercise routines again after the COVID-19 slump, when finding motivation to work out is a struggle and it’s cold outside?

Di Westaway, founder of hiking organisation Wild Women On Top and Coastrek, says the best way to ease back into exercise is to focus on one goal and commit to doing a little bit every day. She has recently launched Stayin’ Wild, a 28-day virtual walking challenge.

“The challenge involves walking 10,000 steps every day with your friend or team,” she says. “We give you a structured plan with community support to inspire and motivate you to commit to your daily walking until it becomes a habit.”

Prepping for workouts in advance will also help ensure you stick to your goals. “If you’re a morning walker, lay out warm clothes the night before,” Di says. “The hardest part is lacing up your runners and getting out the door. Tell yourself you’ll walk for just 10 minutes, but I guarantee once you’re out there, you’ll walk for longer because you’ll feel better within minutes.”

Once you’ve built up your fitness levels, start to plan some small, achievable adventure goals. “Add some puffing – lifting heavy things – and mini adventures to keep your motivation flowing,” Di says. “Maybe diarise a half-day hiking adventure every Sunday morning and a full-day hike once a month. Making progress every week, month and season will keep you focused on your daily walking.”

Sleep better at night

According to the Sleep Health Foundation, sleep is as important as a healthy diet and exercise. Anxiety and disruption to regular routines may have knocked your sleeping habits and morning routines out of whack, making it difficult to function normally when you’re awake. But there’s plenty you can do to get things back on track.

“The most important factor in getting a good night’s sleep is to go to sleep as close as possible to the same time every day,” says sleep consultant Cheryl Fingleson. Ideally, we should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night to allow our bodies to rest and repair.

“Your bedroom should be a safe haven; keep it clean and tidy, and use it only for sleep and sex. Avoid watching TV or looking at your phone right before bed, as the blue light from devices disturbs sleep,” she adds.

Try to eat your evening meal at least two hours before turning in for the night and avoid alcohol and caffeine. “Alcohol can make you sleepy initially, but the sugar content can wake you up again and make it hard to get back to sleep,” Cheryl says.

She also suggests keeping naps short: “If you are tired during the day, a 20-minute nap no later than 3pm is fine, but don’t be tempted to sleep for longer, as it may disrupt your night sleep."

Doing breathing exercises, practicing yoga, meditating, reading a book or listening to soft music can help you switch off and relax before bed. And Cheryl says that although magnesium can also help, speak to your GP before considering melatonin or other sleep aids.

Protect your mental health

Although many of us have spent weeks dreaming about the day things go ‘back to normal’, Associate Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar of Black Dog Institute, cautions that re-entry into the real world might not be all smooth sailing.

It’s vital for us to take it slow and protect our mental health.

“The world might actually be a different place when we get out of this,” she says. “The fact that we’ve had a pandemic in our lifetime … for a lot of people, that would shake their beliefs in the stability of the world. It’s a shock.”

Simple things, such as grocery shopping, driving a car or spending time with friends, might feel strange as you move into your post-lockdown life. Associate Professor Manicavasagar recommends rebuilding relationships slowly and spending time with family and friends to process the experience, rebuild bonds and support one another.

Feelings of anxiety, difficulty sleeping, changes to your appetite, irritability and bouts of crying are all signs you may need extra support. Speak to your GP or visit the Black Dog Institute website for mental health advice and resources. Eligible HCF members also have access to online video sessions with a mental health professional through our partner PSYCH2U.

Remember, too, that this is a great opportunity to rebuild your life the way you want.

Take some time to think about whether the lockdown experience could help you make positive changes going forward.

For example, have your life goals changed? Have you realised you want to work less, exercise more and spend more time with friends and family? Make a list of new habits you’d like to embrace and start implementing them one by one.

Words by Nicola Conville
First published June 2020

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