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How to Reverse Bad Pandemic Health Habits

This episode provides tips on how to change your daily routines for the better

A calendar with fruit, shoes, weights and a mug on it

NICK FERRARI/AARP

Stephen Perrine:

 

So if you just create for yourself habits that are simple but healthy, and you do them for a period of a few weeks, they become ingrained. The brain requires three months of daily repetition, and in that time it develops neural pathways that basically turn a behavior into something automatic.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

A lot of us have picked up bad habits during the pandemic. For some, it could be that our sleep schedule is off, or that we’re spending too much time on our phones, or that our diet needs to be re-evaluated.

 

With the country starting to turn back to normal, many are now trying to build better habits to improve their mental and physical health. Steve Perrine, Special Projects Editor for AARP Bulletin and AARP The Magazine, says it’s the perfect time to consider changing your daily routines for the better. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book, The Whole Body Reset.

 

He helped create the cover story for the May Bulletin, which features tips on how to reverse bad health habits picked up during the pandemic.

 

That’s coming up next.

 

Hi, I’m Mike Ellison with An AARP Take on Today.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

We have joining us today, Mr. Steve Perrine.Just to start off, could you give us three of your favorite tips from the article?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Sure. I think the tip that strikes me the most is to make your bed every morning. As we say in the article, this is an unusual moment in human history, where we had the opportunity to just change our daily habits. So much of our energies that we spend every day are just mindless habits that we don't have to think about. So if you can set yourself up with some healthy habits now you can change your life.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

People who make their bed every day are more likely to report getting a good night's sleep. So it's a strange thing, but if you start your day with that little bit of organization, it only takes a couple of minutes, chances are it's going to pay off later tonight with a better night's sleep.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

And I guess when it's time to rest in the evening, a nicely made is far more inviting.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Yeah, it could be that. It could also be that it just gives you an opportunity to feel like you've got some control over your day.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Yeah.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

You feel more organized so you're able to more ritualize the idea of getting in bed and getting to sleep.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Great way to start off your day. Okay. So how about your next two favorites? And I know it's tough, because there's about 60 in the article.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Sure. Listen, if you want to prevent heart disease brush and floss your teeth twice a day. I know our parents taught us to do that. You probably still brush your teeth. You may not floss. But the reality is that if you have swollen, or bleeding gums, it may allow microorganisms into your bloodstream that travel into your body, create inflammation, and cause heart damage. And in fact, there's an interesting statistic that older adults who skimped on oral hygiene were 20 to 35% more likely to die during a 17-year study.

Number three, put a banana on it. If you're eating something and you could put a banana on it, put a banana on it.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Well, wait a minute, Steve, are you sure? Because you know, conventional wisdom in America, we love our junk food and there's almost nothing that either peanut butter or bacon don't make better. And you're saying?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Oh, well, how about peanut butter, bacon and bananas?

 

Mike Ellison:

 

So the peanut butter and bacon will not negate the banana?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Absolutely not. The banana would make the peanut butter and bacon healthier. Actually the banana would make the bacon much healthier because it's rich in potassium and it helps to offset the sodium that you might be getting with your bacon. So I'm not sure that a bacon and banana plan is exactly right. But basically we eat way too much sodium and it's really hard to cut back. I mean the number one source of sodium in the American diet is actually bread.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

I didn't know that.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Yeah. Bread, pizza crust, muffins. So it's really hard to cut back on sodium in a meaningful way no matter how hard you try. But by eating more bananas and other fruits and vegetables, you're adding potassium into your diet. If you imagine potassium and sodium being like a seesaw, right, when your sodium goes up, you add potassium, it kind of evens things out. Banana is one of the best sources of it.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

These are very simple things that we can do, but just those three. Making your bed every day, brushing and flossing twice a day, and putting a banana on it would make a profound difference. All right. Now let me ask you this, Steve. How do you identify the bad habits that you formed during the pandemic?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Well, you simply need to look at all of the bad habits that we have anyways, which are spending too much on the couch or just in a general sitting position. Something that leads to what's called, I'm not making this up, dormant butt syndrome.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

This is a day of firsts, dormant butt syndrome?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Dormant butt syndrome. It is a real thing. It's caused by not exercising your lower body enough. And it has a whole bunch of bad health outcomes. So the more you're up and moving around the better. Snacking throughout the day, more and more research is saying that especially for older people, three solid, healthy meals is better than snacking throughout the day because our bodies need bigger doses of nutrients, particularly protein, in order to spark the kind of food absorption and processing that we need as we get older. Then, of course, what we all engaged in a lot in 2020, which is checking the political news and the podcasts and the cable TV shows and driving ourselves crazy, regardless of what side of the aisle you have to fall on. Those are three habits that we really, really fell into in a big way in 2020. And it shows. About two thirds of Americans showed some sort of weight gain during that time.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

So, it seems to me, I mean, these are very profound tips, but they also seem very simple. And when people talk about self-improvement, and I guess when the average person thinks about self improvement, they imagine this laundry list of very difficult things that they have to do to change their life. So it almost feels wrong. It's just very simple in nature.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Well, as we said, nearly half of the average person's daily activities are just automatic behaviors. You don't get up every morning and think, "I should have a cup of coffee now." Right? You just make your coffee. You don't get up and think, "I should check my phone to see if I've gotten any emails." You just do it, right? It's a habit. Half of everything you do in a given day is a habit. So if you just create for yourself habits that are simple but healthy, and you do them for a period of a few weeks, they become ingrained. The brain requires three months of daily repetition, and in that time it develops neural pathways that basically turn a behavior into something automatic.

 

So let's say there's something specifically you want to change. If you can commit to yourself that for the next three months, you're going to follow this little course of action. Maybe you want to spend 10 minutes a day writing in a journal. Maybe want to spend 10 minutes a day walking rather than sitting. Maybe you want to spend 10 minutes a day prepping a meal for tomorrow, instead of trying to figure out what the heck you're going to eat. If you can just commit to that 10 minutes for the next three months, chances are it will pay off for you for years and years to come.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

And it could become a lifelong and potentially life saving.

 

Steve Perrine:

 

That's it. It's not really what you did today that matters. It's what you did every day.

 

Mike Ellison:

Right. So now the cover story mentions a variety of ways to keep the brain healthy, including joining a book club. What is so special about books as opposed reading through social media?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Well, one of the things that counts is sharing in-person interactions with others. So one of the reasons joining a book club is great is that you're not just receiving information, but you are sharing information and engaging with others. One of the things that social media and even fighting over Twitter doesn't do for us. It's easy to send an angry text message. It is not easy to sit with somebody face to face and discuss an issue and to challenge each other's perceptions. Research has said that that people who engage their minds in these kinds of activities are 29% less likely to develop dementia over the next five years.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Some of these tips, touch on creating healthier eating habits. We talked a little bit about put a banana on it. What advice would you give to those are who want to eat healthier but are struggling with cutting out junk food?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Here's the biggest tip I can give you. If you see something that looks like a fruit or a vegetable, put it in your mouth. Research has shown that people who eat 30 different types of plants every week have better gut health, which leads to better overall health. So you may eat your peanut butter and whole grain toast and banana sandwich every day, and your same arugula and tomato salad every afternoon, and always have broccoli and mashed potatoes at dinner, but you're not getting the variety of plants that you need. You need a wide variety of plants. So every time you see something that looks like a plant, that looks like a fruit or a vegetable, put it in your mouth.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Let me ask you this, Steve. You may or may not know this, but does it matter in what form you get that? Meaning some people it's hard for them to get their daily dose of vegetables, but it's easier if they can blend it and put it into a smoothie. Does that work as well?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

That works great. That works great. You can blend it into a smoothie. You can have a fruit salad. You can have it however. There was two things I would caution against. Number one, vitamins do not work. Research shows over and over and over again, that when you take a nutrient out of the food matrix and put it into a pill, it does not have the same effect. AARP in general recommends against vitamin and mineral supplements with a few exceptions of particular nutrients that are hard to get from a food, such as vitamin D. For older Americans, vitamin B12, and in some cases, calcium. Beyond that, it's plants, plants, plants, not pills, pills, pills.

 

Secondly, big glasses of juice are not helpful. Vitamin C, for example, is a water-soluble vitamin. So whatever your body can't process right away just goes down the drain with Nemo. So a big giant glass of juice will give you the vitamin C you need plus tons and tons of calories that you don't need. You'd be much better off having three small glasses of juice a day. But you'd be even better off having three oranges a day. Because with the whole fruit, you're getting the fiber, which is also a really important part of our nutritional needs.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

All right. Let me switch topics for a minute, Steve. With people of all ages battling social isolation, what are some of your favorite tips to give people who want to stay socially connected while still being safe?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Number one is to look for opportunities to interact in ways that are really mentally stimulating. We talked a little bit about a book club. But regular opportunities to play games or play cards, or what have you, especially if you're in a safe, outdoor setting. Or if you've been vaccinated and you're with people who have been vaccinated, that's particularly helpful. We're heading into really nice weather right now.

I'm actually this weekend going to see my parents who are in their seventies. I'm going to see them for the first time in 14 months. And it's because everybody's vaccinated. We have the opportunity to be outdoors. And I'm really looking forward to that. It's important to do that. If you're following the safety measures, if you're getting vaccinated, if you have ventilation, it's important to start re-emerging and re-engaging.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Yeah, yeah. As you said at the top of this, this is a period unlike anything you've ever experienced. A few weeks back, we had a chance to speak to Dr. Robin Smith. She acknowledged the same. We have to all acknowledge how unusual these circumstances are, give ourselves a break, and at the same time do the things that give us that peace of mind. Let me ask you this. While many people have enjoyed this time at home because it minimizes their stress, many people are still struggling with stress, even as they spend more time in the comfort of their home. And we also know that being home has increased stress for some people. So what tips do you have for people in either scenario?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Well, the number one thing you can do to relieve the stress of being sort of stuck at home is to really build in structure into your day. We've already talked a little bit about the importance of making your bed, right? It's so simple. You get up. Every day I know I'm going to make my bed. I'm going to make my coffee, actually not in that order. Coffee comes first. You know, I have a bedtime ritual to me, which is after I brush my teeth, I get a little glass of seltzer water, I get a book. That's my bedtime ritual.

Those sorts of daily rituals and habits, if you can build them around fitness and nutrition, that's amazing. If you can say, "Every day at 3:00 PM I'm going to have a glass of green tea, and a piece of fruit." Amazing. If you could say, "Every evening after dinner, I'm going to go for a 20 minute walk." Fantastic. Just make the day segmented by these little daily habits and rituals, and it will not only add a lot of healthy impact in your life, but it will relieve the stress of social isolation. It will relieve the stress of not having the daily go-to things that we normally rely on.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Many of the examples you gave me are very time specific. Every day, especially if you have children, you’re getting thrown a curveball. Is it a matter of just making sure you do it every day, as opposed to as close to the same time as possible? You know what I mean? Or is it just as long as you get it done daily, does that have any effect on developing that habit?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

It's more, it's not what you did today. It's what you did most days. Okay? So here's a great example. There was a study that found that for every day that you don't eat breakfast, you increase your diabetes risk. So if you eat breakfast only one day a week, your diabetes risk is greater than somebody who eats two days a week. If you eat two days a week, your diabetes risk is higher than somebody who eats breakfast three days a week. And that goes on up until about six days a week at which point it evens out.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Wow.I think this is an episode a lot of our listeners are going to get tremendous value out of. So really, I sincerely thank you for this insight. Is there's anything I missed? Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

 

Steve Perrine:

 

Well, I recently completed a book called The Whole Body Reset, which I did in conjunction with AARP. We put 100 AARP employees on a test panel. And the research around the book has shown pretty conclusively that older adults, at least by age 50, probably a little bit earlier, need to start each day with 25 to 30 grams of protein. That if you do not do this, that you will be probably in muscle loss mode all day because older bodies don't respond to protein as quickly or as actively as younger bodies do.

I just want to reiterate this is your chance. If you don't like something about life right now, this is an amazing, maybe once in a generation, opportunity to change life for the better. So, go for it.

 

Mike Ellison:

 

Steve Perrine is Special Projects Editor for AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. He’s also author of the forthcoming book, The Whole Body Reset. Thank you, Steve.

You can find the article “60 Ways to Live Longer, Stronger and Better” in the May 2021 issue of AARP Bulletin or on AARP dot org. We’ll leave a link in the description.

That’s it for today’s show.

If you liked this episode, please let us know by emailing us at newspodcast@AARP.org

Thanks to our news team.

Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Bianca Trotter

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison.

After about 15 months of too much worrying, sitting, and staying up late, returning to a healthy lifestyle won’t be easy. This month's cover story for the May AARP Bulletin features tips on how to reverse these bad habits picked up during the pandemic. Today, Stephen Perrine, Special Project Editor for AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin, gives his take on how to change your daily routines for the better.

For more information, read 60 Post Pandemic-Health Habits to Help Get Back on Track.

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