Health

How a Year of Too Much Drinking, Stress, and Sitting Affects Your Body

VICE asked doctors what the long-term concerns are for one really bad year of health habits.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
January 22, 2021, 6:44pm
Young man drinking beer and looking in smart phone
blackCAT via Getty

If you’ve been steadily drinking an average of three beers per night, when, pre-pandemic, you were a weekend-beers-only kinda guy, or exercising zero days per week when you previously worked out regularly, you’re far from alone. The stresses of the past year have been hell, at best. It’s understandable that a few coping mechanisms have emerged.

It’s also understandable if, looking at the near-ish future in which everyone is vaccinated and partying once again, you’re starting to feel a bit concerned about the number you’ve done on your general health this past year. Are all those extra couch beers driving you to an early grave? Will your body ever recover from a year of basically no moving around at all? Are the fortunate survivors of this extremely deadly pandemic all going to die early, because of the habits we adopted to cope with 2020?

As a handful of doctors told VICE, broadly speaking, the side effects and coping mechanisms developed mid-pandemic should not have grave consequences on our lifespans and overall health. While you may have lingering concerns that whatever hell you hath wrought on your body is irredeemable, doctors largely agree that it’s completely possible to “bounce back,” and it’s completely normal if you’ve neglected your health this year.  

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“As humans, we are all very resilient,” Leah Whigman, associate professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso, told VICE. “Is there any value in saying, I screwed up big time, I’m going to die earlier now? Or is it better to say, It was a rough year, we had extreme challenges from a mental health perspective, and give ourselves a break so we can embrace healthier goals as we move forward?” 

Or, in other words, a year of no socializing, no moving, and more drinking should not cause major health issues in the coming years (within reason, and unless your new habits are here to stay). VICE asked doctors what it might look like to “bounce back” from some of the common coping mechanisms, side effects, and unavoidably stressful situations we experienced in the past year. Here’s what they had to say.

More drinking

“Excessive drinking,” according to the CDC, means eight or more drinks per week for women, or 15 or more per week for men, based on average body size. This amount of drinking, as a lifestyle is tied to early mortality. But one year of drinking two beers per night isn’t necessarily going to take years off your life, Whigman explained. If you were unusually lost in the sauce this year, you’re almost certainly going to be fine long-term, healthwise, unless it becomes your new normal. 

The greatest risk this common pandemic habit poses is an increased risk of fatty liver disease, Whigman said, but many who develop this already have a genetic predisposition for it.

Working from home

Working from home can be extremely good: As workers previously told VICE, many find at least some amount of work-from-home flexibility preferable to being in an office every single day. But working from home is still an adjustment, and one that most people made under duress this year; for many, it meant trying to juggle work and kids and family in the same cramped space. It can also lead to a total lack of barrier between your personal and work life, Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, told VICE, as was the case for many who made the sudden shift to remote work during the pandemic.

“It can be really hard to shift psychological sets between work life and personal life, and there’s an obligation to keep working in our personal time,” Stern said. “For a lot of people, a commute provided time to shift their psychological set, and now that a lot of people don’t have a commute, it bleeds the time between personal psychological mode and work psychological mode.”

Stern added that, when it becomes safe and possible for more people to resume commuting to an office, they may find they return to it naturally. “I think that our minds and our bodies are going to crave boundaries, so they’ll shift back into that previous boundary system quite quickly,” Stern said. “I think people are going to look for that, need that, and feel relieved by having that boundary set for them.”

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Those who continue working from home will seek boundaries in other ways: Maybe setting up a more permanent desk setup, moving their desk out of their bedroom, or setting stricter limits on work hours. 

Never exercising

If you stopped working out when the gyms closed, and then refused to go back when your gym reopened mid-pandemic, you’re definitely not alone. This has been a year of survival mode, and anything more physically stressful than that—like lifting weights, maintaining a running schedule, etc.—has felt like too much. While Whigman emphasized that adults generally need about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day (this could be as simple as a walk, or a half-hour of yoga), you can simply start moving around more when you feel like it and get back to feeling healthier. 

As Whigman said, bodies are resilient; there’s no sense in looking back on how little you’ve moved in the past year and feeling bad about it, when you can look ahead and resolve to move around more in the future. 

“One thing for people to keep in mind is it’s never too late to become healthier,” she said. “The past is in the past, everything is always about what you can do moving forward.” 

Gaining a lil weight

I won’t put any cutesy names for quarantine weight gain here, but the fact that names for this phenomenon exist suggest that many have experienced extra weight gain over the past year. And why not! We are stuck inside, working from home, and, up until very recently, have been watching our government absolutely fumble any sort of response to the pandemic. 

If you’re concerned about the weight you’ve gained, Whigman said that, just like returning to exercise, a return to pre-pandemic eating and mobility habits should mean a return to pre-pandemic bodyweight (this is known as set point theory). But! Whigman also added that adults typically gain a few pounds every year, and so while you may just now be noticing it, it’s likely that you’ve gained weight every year of your adult life, and the pandemic year is no different. 

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As Whigman emphasized, be forgiving and kind to yourself; haranguing yourself over some extra weight you gained in the midst of getting through the trials of the past year is only going to make you feel bad, when you should feel proud that you’ve made it this far.

Less socializing

If you’re thinking that all of your social interactions in public are going to be very awkward for a little while, they probably will be! But so will everyone else’s, Stern explained, and that’s fine. Stern said that the way we socialize has likely changed over the course of the pandemic, due to a total lack of small-talk, etc., and there will certainly be an adjustment period, once we go back to normal society. 

“A lot of people are joking that they’re losing their ability to socialize; we don’t need to worry about it in a tremendously detrimental way, but it will take some time to refresh that muscle a little bit,” she said. “Human beings are naturally social creatures. We are hardwired to be able to socialize. Broadscale, we don’t have to worry about our ability to socialize being lost forever.”

Socializing without masks

A common pandemic stress dream for those who actually follow public health guidelines, going out without a mask on has now become a point of anxiety for many. Stern said some anxiety around seeing people maskless, post-vaccine, will be normal. We’re so used to covering our faces now, and rightfully afraid of the consequences of not doing that. But since it’s likely that masking will exist in some form for a while, gradually forgoing masks in public spaces will help alleviate a bit of the stress, and help with our eventual, slow return to normalcy. 

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