EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
AARON SCOTT, HOST:
Hey, there, SHORT WAVErs. Aaron Scott here. And I have the pleasure of chatting with Allison Aubrey, who joins us regularly. Hey there, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey, Aaron. It's great to be here. I remember when you were an intern on the science desk. I know that was a while back.
SCOTT: It's been a couple of years. Yes, indeed. Thank you very much. And I'm super excited that we get to do our first episode together. So what are we going to be talking about today?
AUBREY: We are going to talk habits as we all...
SCOTT: All right.
AUBREY: ...Kind of get to the end of this second pandemic winter. We've all developed various ways to cope over the last two years - some of them helpful, some not so helpful. Baking comes to mind for me. Baking is great, just not every day. So when it...
AUBREY: ...Comes to our eating habits, alcohol consumption, daily exercise, turns out some of these bad habits are persisting, and it might be time for a reboot.
SCOTT: All right. So today on the show, then, Allison and I talk about how the initiation of lockdown rules in March 2020 had a profound effect on people's daily habits and how to think about trying to get back to a more healthy lifestyle. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SCOTT: All right, Allison. So a few weeks ago, you spoke with Emily about trying to get back to the doctor for regular health screenings. Today, we're going to focus on what people might do on their own when it comes to their personal health and well-being. Let's start with exercise. We all know it's good for us. How has the pandemic affected our physical activity?
AUBREY: Well, two years ago, at the start of the lockdown restrictions, physical activity fell off pretty significantly. There's a very clever study where researchers tracked people's daily steps via smartphone using an app and found initial declines of up to about 30% or so. Now, maybe this isn't too surprising, given people were not going out. Everything was closed.
I spoke to the study author. His name is Geoff Tison. He's a cardiologist at UC San Francisco. And he continues to track steps. So the research is ongoing. They've collected about 100 million measurements from nearly a million people. 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. It - there is variation, but it's been almost two years. I think it is possible that people are just less used to being active.
AUBREY: Lots of us know somebody who went the other direction, becoming more fit amid the pandemic. I'm jealous of those people myself.
AUBREY: But in many countries, including here in the U.S., people on average are still moving less.
SCOTT: Right, right. We have the Emily Kwongs of the world, who take up running marathons. We heard about it...
AUBREY: Good for her.
SCOTT: ...Last week - very impressive. I, on the other hand - I identify a little bit more with the folks who, working from home, confined at the end of the day, the furthest we went was up and down the stairs a couple of times to the kitchen.
AUBREY: I get it.
SCOTT: But it's also, I think, pretty commonplace for so many of us. So were the researchers at all surprised that our activity hasn't returned to normal?
AUBREY: The researchers I talked to who study behavior change say they were not surprised to see that these pandemic habits really 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: This includes our exercise, our physical activity, as well as changes to our eating habits and pattern of alcohol consumption.
SCOTT: Right. Food and booze - let's talk about those. So many of us recall there was a rush of liquor store sales when lockdowns first began. What's happened since then?
AUBREY: Well, last year in the U.S., people spent about $47 billion on beer products, 20 billion on wine and 21 billion on spirits. This is data from Nielsen. So clearly, we are a nation of drinkers. And the pandemic drinking trends really mirror the trend with physical activity. The most abrupt change occurred early in the lockdown. In fact, after that first week of stay-at-home orders back in March of 2020, Nielsen tracked a 54% increase in the national sales of alcohol.
SCOTT: So you're saying I'm not alone in that my recycling bin seems to be a lot more full than it used to be (laughter). So...
AUBREY: That's right.
SCOTT: Which is to say that, I mean, this also is happening at the same time that bars and restaurants were closing. So where people were drinking was also presumably changing, right?
AUBREY: That's right. More people just got into the habit of drinking at home. One study found a 41% increase in heavy drinking among women in the early months of the pandemic. This was defined as drinking five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women **
AUBREY: ** within a couple of hours. And surveys also found more people reporting that they were drinking to cope.
SCOTT: Yeah. And that can be a hard habit to break. So drinking was up at the start of the pandemic. What's happening now?
AUBREY: What has happened over the last year is that alcohol sales have declined some. This is also data from Nielsen that they shared with me. But drinking levels have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that many people are still in the habit of drinking more at home.
SCOTT: And all that alcohol cannot be great for their health. Is there any research that documents the effects over the past two years?
AUBREY: There's a lot of overlap with stress, with anxiety. So people may drink to cope, and that might feel good in the short term. 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 that compared to the months leading up to March of 2020, there was a steady rise in blood pressure among some 500,000 people across 50 states who were all part of a study. I spoke to Michael Honigberg - he's a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital - about this research.
MICHAEL HONIGBERG: Blood pressure went up on average by over two point - over 2 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: Now, the researchers that published that paper say the possible reasons for this rise in blood pressure include increased alcohol consumption, as we just said, less physical activity and stress.
SCOTT: That's something we've talked about a lot on this show. I mean, it's like just a giant overstuffed stress sandwich, this pandemic we've been living in. And I'm guessing, speaking of sandwiches, that weight gain also fits into this conversation, right?
AUBREY: Yes, enough excess weight is also a risk for heart disease. And there's both CDC data and studies pointing to an increase in weight gain amid the pandemic. One from researchers at 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 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?
SCOTT: People are eating more. People are drinking more. People are exercising less. The big question is, what do we do about it? It sounds like it's probably going to be a lot to change our daily habits. Where do people begin?
AUBREY: Well, there's a lot of science on the best ways to get started and also on the best ways to improve your chances of success. To begin, always start with a bite-sized goal. If you want to run a marathon, start with a mile. If you want to lose 20 pounds, start with the strategy to lose 5. It also helps when setting a new goal to join with someone else - a friend, a partner that can help you. And another strategy that really works is this - bet on yourself. Katy Milkman says there's a whole body of science to back up the idea that we are more likely to achieve our goals if we have to forfeit, to give up something if we don't stick with it.
MILKMAN: There's wonderful research on cigarette smokers who want to quit. And having a way to put money on the line they'll have to forfeit if they don't achieve their goals within six months improved success rates by 30%. So you can literally put money on the line on a website or with a friend that you say you'll forfeit if you don't achieve a goal. And that turns out to be hugely motivating.
SCOTT: (Laughter) I love that - gambling for good.
AUBREY: That's right.
SCOTT: So it is almost spring, which means for a lot of the country, we're going to get to set our clocks forward an hour this coming weekend. For many of us, that means warmer weather and more hours of daylight and sunshine.
AUBREY: Exactly. Two things happening right now - a lull coming in the pandemic, so it seems given the current trends, and the start of spring. Katy Milkman says together, it is a 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.
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AUBREY: So with this change of seasons, this turning point in the pandemic, it could be the right time to try to get back on track.
SCOTT: Thank you so much, Allison. This conversation has filled me with some hope. It has been a total joy talking with you, and I hope that this is the first of many conversations.
AUBREY: Oh, I'm so glad to hear that. It's great to be here, Aaron.
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SCOTT: This show was edited by Jane Greenhalgh and Gisele Grayson, who is also our senior supervising editor. The show was produced by Thomas Lu, fact-checked by Katie Sypher. Neal Carruth is our senior director of on-demand news programming. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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