Ever wondered how to take care of yourself physically during a crisis? I learned the hard way what NOT to do. Five tips to help you with physical self-care–even if the world’s gone crazy.
During the present COVID-19 crisis, we all need reminders on how to take care of ourselves. When disaster strikes, we easily forget familiar routines and ways of managing healthy self-care. April’s series will provide hacks for self-care–mental, artistic/academic, physical, and spiritual–during a crisis.
The Great Switcheroo
“One thirty-five,” Pedro’s raspy voice held a note of despair. I could scarcely understand him as he struggled to speak with lips that didn’t move. The cancer cells had attacked the muscles of his face, making it impossible for him to smile and difficult talk or eat.
“What about 135?” I asked.
“That’s what I weigh.”
“Oh. I glanced down at my ever-expanding figure. I’d need to run to Old Navy and buy a larger size of pants today. While Pedro looked like an extra for Schindler’s List, I looked…well, more substantial. I had avoided the scales the last time I’d made a flying visit home, because I knew they’d tell me a frightening story.
For the first four months of Pedro’s cancer, I had maintained my regular exercise routine. I ran four mornings a week, and walked the other three. Eating healthfully at home or in the hospital cafeteria posed no problem. I may have gained a pound or two.
But ever since he’d relapsed and ended up in California, things had changed. His status had gone from typical cancer patient, to patient in crisis, to patient circling the drain. Cancer in Bozeman and cancer in California looked like two different beasts.
In California, I had no place to exercise. At least that’s what I told myself. In California, I couldn’t find healthy food quickly. At least that’s what I told myself. In California I didn’t have time for long runs over windswept hills or fixing a salad at the hospital salad bar. At least that’s what I told myself.
Crisis Causes Us to Narrow Our Focus
The focus of my life narrowed to helping Pedro stay alive just one day more. I spent about 22 hours a day in his hospital room. At night, I slept on a lumpy chair that folded out into a cot. When nurses woke him to take his vitals, I woke up, too.
Between lack of sleep, a poor diet, and no exercise (unless you count walking up 11 flights of stairs once a day while hefting a venti latte), I knew exactly why I had to buy new clothes all the time.
“How are you doing?” people would ask.
“Fine,” I’d reply. Obviously, I could handle this.
Their looks of pity said otherwise.
Times of crisis cause us to narrow our focus and eliminate everything that seems extraneous. I quit reading books, I stopped exercising, I ate whatever I wanted to, and I refused most offers of help—not wanting to burden anyone else. Basically, I forgot to take care of myself.
I didn’t forget: I felt that self-care fell into that extraneous category. It didn’t. I didn’t see the connection between my health and having the resources to help my husband.
The consequences lingered for years. I finally had the courage to step on the scales the month after Pedro returned from his stem-cell transplant. We had swapped weights. At the start of cancer, he weighed 195. At the end of cancer, I weighed 195. His lowest weight equaled my before-cancer weight.
Cortisol and stress played a huge part (pardon the pun) in my weight gain. But failing to exercise and eat well played an equal part.
Stress produces cortisol, and cortisol makes us gain weight. By failing to take care of myself, I exacerbated my stress and elevated my cortisol levels.
I Learned to Take Care of Myself
Fortunately, I learned to take care of myself between the two big crises in our lives. When Sarah went through a mental health crisis that no one in the family expected, I knew the value of taking care of myself. I continued to exercise—in fact, I exercised more because I knew that walking would help me process my emotions. Instead of turning to chocolate, I turned to my camera and spent more time photographing beauty.
These tips will help you take care of yourself during the current COVID-19 crisis (or any crisis that may arise in your life).
1. NOW is a Great Time to Start
Don’t put off starting an exercise program. Yeah, I know, all the exercise programs say to consult your doctor first. Doctors have so much going on they don’t have time to consult with you. Don’t give yourself excuses.
Unless a doctor has already told you not to walk, you can start with that. An exercise program simply means a schedule or strategy. Check out this resource from UC Berkeley. Having goals and a schedule help us deal with disruption, so go ahead and schedule in daily exercise.
If you already have an exercise routine, add to it. As a teacher, I usually get about two miles of walking done in my classroom each day. To mitigate my loss, I walk two miles after lunch in addition to my morning routine of HIIT workouts and running.
2. Start a (Socially Distant) Competition
Both FitBit and Apple Watch have a competition component built right in. Daily competitions for steps, move calories, or exercise minutes will keep you motivated. Let me know if you’d like some friendly competition. I have an Apple Watch and I’d love to connect and compete! Apple Watch competitions don’t require that you compete for the same
Exercise tracker competitions provide a way to connect with others during a time when we need to stay separate from them.Start a fitness tracker competition to stay connected yet separate from your friends and help you take care of yourself physically. #fitnesstracker #shelterinplace Click To Tweet
3. Commit to Taking Care of Yourself
What we schedule, we do. Schedule in self-care, and you’ll discover you have time for it. Use this time of sheltering in place to schedule new habits.
In fact, experts suggest that starting a new exercise routine or habit during a major change in your life might help you stick to it better. The experts had vacations in mind, not COVID-19, but the concept remains the same.
4. Model Physical Self-Care
You may not go on long, solitary runs, but you can invite your family to learn about self-care by joining you.
After Pedro’s cancer recovery, we started a habit of walking together every evening. Our daughters often joined us. Exercising together as a family provides not only exercise but strengthens family bonds and conflict-resolution skills.
In addition to walking, we also went mountain biking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and dirt-biking together as a family. Because of past knee injuries and neuropathy caused by cancer, Pedro doesn’t run. But the girls and I enjoy running together and every few years we do a race together.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can always have dance parties with your kids or do workout videos together. Find an old Richard Simmons video on YouTube and get sweatin’ to the oldies (your kids might die laughing).
5. Plan Your Menu
The concept of “just running to the grocery store” evaporated when the coronavirus started shopping hysteria over toilet paper. Last week, I could go to our local Safeway and the only change involved markers on the floor to keep patrons separated during checkout.
Yesterday, Pedro stood in line for 40 minutes outside of the store waiting to get in. I felt sorry for him, because he almost never goes grocery shopping. It would behoove each of us to make menus and plan out a week’s worth of meals before braving long lines.
You can make menu-planning a family affair. Challenge your kids to find healthy recipes and teach them how to prepare their choices. Explain that fueling our bodies with healthy things shows we respect and love ourselves and want to take care of ourselves. You can find lots of simple, healthy recipes here and here.
Learn to Take Care of Yourself Physically in Times of Crisis
When you take care of yourself physically in times of crisis, you have bigger reserves to draw on each day. Your body will thank you for investing in self-care even in a time of crisis.Invest in your physical health during a crisis–you're worth it! #exercise #healthyeating #selfcare Click To Tweet