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As the U.S. emerges from 2 pandemic winters, it's time to reboot some habits

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The world has now surpassed 6 million deaths from COVID, reminding us the pandemic is far from over. Still, as we are entering a third year, countries are lifting restrictions and trying to resume life as normal - whatever that means. U.S. health experts say it is time to take stock of our daily habits when it comes to alcohol consumption, daily exercise, diet and preventative health. Turns out, some of our bad pandemic habits persist. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us this morning. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's talk about exercise. I mean, how many people do you know who've bought some form of exercise bike or treadmill, built up home gyms? I know I tried to. But have we all kept our exercise routines intact during the past two years?

AUBREY: Well, let's go back. Two years ago, at the start of lockdown restrictions, physical activity fell off pretty significantly. There is a very clever study where researchers tracked people's daily steps via smartphone and an app, and they found initial declines of up to 30%. They have a hundred million measurements from about a million people. Now, this might not sound too surprising, given that people weren't going out, everything was closed, hadn't set up that home gym yet. I spoke to study author Dr. Geoff Tison. He's a cardiologist. And he continues to track people's steps. So the research is ongoing. And it turns out people are still moving less compared to before the pandemic began.

GEOFF TISON: People's activities globally have not come back to pre-pandemic levels. There is variation. But when it's been almost two years, I think it is possible that people are just less used to being active.

AUBREY: Now, lots of us know someone who went the other direction - becoming more fit amid the pandemic. But in many countries, including in the U.S., people on average are still moving less.

MARTIN: All right. I can't really talk to those people who are like, I'm fitter than I've ever been.

AUBREY: (Laughter) Oh, you and me both.

MARTIN: So what did researchers say? Were they surprised by this data at all?

AUBREY: You know, the scientists I talked to who study behavior change say they are not surprised to see that pandemic habits still persist. Here's Katy Milkman. She's a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and she wrote the book "How To Change."

KATY MILKMAN: You know, I wish it surprised me, but it doesn't. We know when a shock arises and it forces a change in our behavior for an extended period of time, there tend to be carryover effects because we're sticky in our behaviors, and this pandemic has certainly been a shock to our systems, and lots of the things that we've gotten accustomed to over the last two years are sticking around.

AUBREY: And this includes not just exercise and physical activity but also changes to our eating habits and pattern of alcohol consumption.

MARTIN: All right, let's get into those things - alcohol and eating. Many of us remember the rush of liquor sales, right? As lockdown started, everyone rushed to get wine and beer and what else.

AUBREY: Yeah.

MARTIN: What happened since?

AUBREY: Well, let me start with a number. In the U.S. last year, people spent about $47 billion on beer products, 20 billion on wine and 21 billion on spirits. This is data from Nielsen. So clearly, the U.S. is a country of drinkers. And the pandemic drinking trend really mirrors the trend with physical activity. The most abrupt change occurred early in lockdown. In fact, after the first week of stay-at-home orders back in March of 2020, Nielsen tracked over a 50% increase in national sales of alcohol. That's at bars and restaurants closed. Research points to more heavy drinking in the early months of the pandemic. Surveys found more people drinking to cope. What's happened over the last year is that alcohol sales have declined some, but they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting many people are still in the habit of, you know, drinking at home.

MARTIN: Right. It became a habit, which is hard to break.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: And it's not, obviously, good for your health. Any research to document the effects of this over the last two years?

AUBREY: There's a lot of overlap with stress and anxiety, obviously. So many people may drink to cope, but in the end, they can set themselves up for more health problems. For instance, scientists have documented a rise in blood pressure amid the pandemic, and alcohol is one of the risk factors. A study published in the journal Circulation found this pretty steady rise in blood pressure among some 500,000 people across 50 states, beginning after March of 2020. I spoke to Michael Honigberg. He's a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital about the research.

MICHAEL HONIGBERG: Blood pressure went up on average by over two points, over two millimeters of mercury. That's a small absolute change in a given individual patient, but at a population level, that actually translates into quite a bit of excess risk. And so one thing I worry a lot about is whether this might translate into higher rates of heart attack, stroke and other such complications across the population in the years to come.

AUBREY: The researchers say the possible reasons for this rise in blood pressure include increased alcohol consumption - as we just talked about - less physical activity and stress.

MARTIN: So when you factor all three of those things in, I mean, you start talking about weight gain, right? How does that fit into this research?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, excess weight is also a risk factor for heart disease, and there's both CDC data and studies pointing to an increase in weight gain. One from UCSF found people gained more than a pound a month in the early months of the pandemic. And even if that weight gain has flattened out, which it likely has, Dr. Honigberg says it can be really tough to shed that weight.

HONIGBERG: People are still exercising less. Many have gained weight. Anecdotally, a line that we hear in clinic a lot is - I've gained some pounds since COVID started, but who hasn't?

AUBREY: So now the big question - right? - is what to do about it?

MARTIN: So, Allison, what to do about it?

AUBREY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, how do people shed - start shedding these bad habits?

AUBREY: Well, for starters, don't beat yourself up. And I have a word that should bring a smile to your face - spring.

MARTIN: Yeah.

AUBREY: You know, more daylight, warmer weather. For many of us, Katy Milkman says it's the perfect time for a fresh start.

MILKMAN: My research on the fresh-start effect has actually shown that there are moments in our lives that feel like new beginnings, and they include the start of spring, and if we give them a little nudge, we can see really positive results.

AUBREY: So as we hit this pandemic lull and spring coming, it could be time to try to get back on track, Rachel.

MARTIN: Here's to new beginnings. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you.

AUBREY: (Laughter) Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "DIFFERENTIAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.