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The prolonged stress experienced by adults due to the pandemic is seriously affecting their mental and physical health. According to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey:

  • 75 percent of adults reported a high-stress level.
  • 67 percent of adults said they have been sleeping less or more than they wanted to since the pandemic started.
  • 61 percent of adults experienced undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic—with 42 percent gaining an average of 29 pounds.
  •  53 percent of US adults said they have been less active physically than they wanted to be.

These results are not surprising. As the nation’s stress level increased, so did our need for comfort foods. Working at home led to more opportunities for snacking.  When fitness centers and gyms closed, our exercise routines got interrupted. And not being able to see family and friends in person made us feel anxious and isolated.

What’s worse is that nearly half of Americans (47 percent) said they delayed or cancelled healthcare services since the pandemic started. But now things have changed and it’s time to take a close look at your lifestyle choices and health. Though it may feel daunting, a good place to start is with a General Wellness Assessment, a free online evaluation available through Virginia Hospital Center (sponsor of this article). By answering a series of questions about your lifestyle and habits, you will gain a better understanding of what your health risks might be, and how to get back to being healthy and feeling good.

Making lifestyle changes

Your general health is largely a product of your lifestyle. Malorie Sridhar, MD, VHC Physician Group-Primary Care Arlington South, has a special interest in lifestyle medicine. This relatively new field uses preventive care to treat and reverse chronic illnesses through evidence-based lifestyle interventions. Lifestyle medicine focuses on six key areas: nutrition, physical activity, healthy sleep, stress management, positive social interactions, and avoiding risky substances.

“The first step in helping patients make and sustain changes for better health is to assess their goals,” explains Dr. Sridhar. “Maybe the goal is just feeling well when chasing their grandkids around. Or it can be reducing the number of prescriptions they are taking for chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, by changing their diet and working more exercise into their day. We can use those goals to help motivate patients.”

It’s important to have a good relationship with your primary care physician in order to create a partnership and be able to find enjoyable ways to make the necessary lifestyles changes. “Now we’re seeing patients who say they haven’t seen a doctor for two years, and we’re finding more health issues than we would have expected,” says Dr. Sridhar. “We encourage our patients to come in to have a baseline assessment.”

Keeping seniors healthy and connected

Staying current with their health is especially important for seniors who typically have at least one to two chronic health conditions they are managing. “Telehealth visits fill a gap in healthcare, but seniors need to know it’s safe to see their physician in person,” says Kate Chutuape, MPH, Senior Health Manager. Also, caregivers of aging or infirm family members tend to ignore their own health while caring for others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of adults put off their healthcare during the pandemic and caregivers are a large part of that group.

It’s also essential for people, especially seniors, to get back out and reconnect. “The pandemic put into focus how critical it is to have social connections,” says Chutuape. “Connecting with people and having the opportunity for laughter and sharing are important to our overall mental wellbeing.”

An easy way to reconnect is through the Senior Health Department at Virginia Hospital Center. “We have fitness classes, including strength training, a free walking program, as well as monthly community lectures. Our senior exercise classes are a big hit,” says Chutuape.

Thinking about expanding your family?

For those considering having a baby, it’s time to take steps in the right direction. Lynsey Owen, MD, FACOG, VHC Physician Group-OB/GYN Arlington South, identifies three time-sensitive issues for women who are preparing to become pregnant:

  1. Get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly support vaccination for women who are trying to conceive, are pregnant, and are breastfeeding. “Women who are pregnant are at a much higher risk of complications from COVID, and what affects mom affects her baby. Getting vaccinated will greatly reduce the risk,” says Dr. Owen.
  • Make sure you’re in a good place—from a mental health perspective. “During the pandemic, we saw a lot of feelings of isolation and stress. Pregnancy can exacerbate underlying mental health disorders. Seek help before you conceive,” Dr. Owen advises.
  • Get close to your ideal body weight. “Even a 5 percent reduction in weight will increase the likelihood for regular ovulation, which improves the likelihood of conceiving more quickly,” says Dr. Owen.

Losing those “pandemic pounds” for better health

According to the National Institutes of Health, people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing type II diabetes and coronary heart disease, and those who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke.

If you are severely overweight—that is, have a BMI of 35 and up—and have tried everything to lose the extra pounds through conventional means, such as dieting, exercise, behavior therapy, and/or medications, but have been unsuccessful, you are not alone. “In reality, 97 percent of people who are trying to lose weight will fail at keeping it off,” says J.R. Salameh, MD, FACS,VHC Physician Group-Surgical Specialists and Medical Director of the Bariatric Surgery Center at Virginia Hospital Center.  “Obesity is not a choice.  It’s a chronic disease and we treat it as such.”

Weight loss surgery can be an option if you are more than 100 pounds overweight, but also can be considered if you are 70 pounds overweight with a medical condition, such as sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, or joint problems. Having weight loss surgery can alleviate and even resolve these conditions.

The goal of weight loss surgery is not to get to “ideal body weight.” It is to achieve a healthier weight that a patient can maintain.  “We work to keep patients healthy for life,” says Dr. Salameh. “We support them through our bariatric surgeons, psychologists and dietitians. It doesn’t end with surgery.” If you want to find out if bariatric surgery is the right option for you, VHC has a free online assessment to help you find out.

So, is the pandemic over? No. What has come to an end is the time for using the pandemic as an excuse for unhealthy habits and lifestyles. VHC’s General Wellness Assessment is a good way to see if your lifestyle choices are affecting your health for the worse. And, it can be the start of your renewed effort to live a healthier life.

Virginia Hospital Center’s General Wellness Assessment free evaluation is the first step to a healthier life. Visit Virginia Hospital Center’s Healthy Living Program to learn about programs and classes that will support your lifestyle changes.

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