While 2020 and early 2021 presented significant challenges to women and men alike, there's reason to believe that COVID19 placed women under even more pressure due to issues like widespread school closures and layoffs from low-income jobs.
Although men on average seem to be impacted more severely by COVID infections compared to women, studies have found that "it's women who are more likely to bear the brunt of the social and economic consequences of the pandemic." Some experts even worry that job losses, mounting debt, and family obligations may even cause progress made in gender equality and equal wages to reverse in some ways.
With vaccines set to become widely available in the U.S throughout the Spring of 2021, most women are looking forward to a gradual return to normalcy. What we've learned from the past year-plus is that a healthy lifestyle can do wonders for boosting our resiliency and energy.
Below we'll look at how habits like exercising and eating well can continue to support women's health as they deal with the changes that 2021 and beyond will bring.
Why COVID19 Has Negatively Impacted Many Women
As the Brookings Institution puts it, "COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up."
Worldwide, women tend to earn less than men, save less, and hold less secure jobs.
Not only this, but they're typically responsible for more childcare duties and are more likely to be employed in the "informal sector" — meaning in jobs that generally pay low wages and don't provide many benefits or guarantee long-term work.
These are the exact types of jobs that were lost at high rates by women during the pandemic, such as those in hospitality, retail, and childcare services. As the world locked down due to COVID19, these jobs quickly disappeared since they mostly involve in-person work and can’t be done remotely. While unemployment became a national crisis, it was of specific concern for women, most of whom had demanding household duties as well.
A substantial number of women in the U.S support themselves and their families by working in low-wage jobs, including single mothers who account for about fifteen percent of U.S households. A 2018 survey found that half of all working women in the U.S worked in jobs paying close to minimum wage or just above, with median earnings of less than $11/hour. For these women, having savings put aside for unforeseen emergencies is nearly impossible.
Not only do women tend to learn less, but working mothers also typically shoulder the majority of family responsibilities.
The pandemic caused major upheaval to childcare systems and schools, and this translated to big problems for parents who typically work outside the home and rely on childcare for help.
With daycare centers, schools, and after-school programs closed, mothers are lost when trying to find the ever-elusive work life balance, often needing to reduce their hours or leave their jobs entirely as a result of the pandemic.
And even many mothers who were able to work from home through the pandemic have struggled to keep everything afloat — such as domestic duties, preparing food for children who are normally at school, looking after sick family members, and also taking care of themselves.
How Exercise and a Healthy Lifestyle Have Helped Women Cope
If there's one good thing to come out of all the changes that the pandemic brought about, it's that with many adults home more due to lockdowns, employment changes, working from home, and so on, there were more ways to exercise from home, experiment with cooking and more.
Exercise is one important aspect of nurturing a strong mind body connection, which is critical for managing stress. In fact, physical activity is considered to be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve health and quality of life.
While a healthy lifestyle alone won't fix all of the complex issues women have faced recently, it can boost their ability to deal with uncertainty by giving them more energy, mental clarity, confidence, and an improved outlook on life.
One of the specific ways in which exercise can help support women's health includes decreasing feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression and boosting resilience. This happens in part because of exercise's positive influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the release of various neurotransmitters and hormones.
Exercise has also been shown to improve sleep quality by fighting anxiety and increasing tiredness at night. Whether stressed or not, getting enough sleep is crucial for mental and physical health, so take advice from many experts and aim for 7 to 9 hours each night. Try sticking to a regular sleep schedule, which trains your body to sleep more deeply.
Another way in which being active supports overall health is by limiting too much screen time/sedentary time, which can worsen depression and low motivation, not to mention contribute to weight gain. Rather than spending lots of downtime in front of screens, for both work and leisure, experts recommend taking active breaks throughout the day to help support cognitive functions, motivation, attention span, and even memory.
Finally, exercise is important for supporting a healthy immune system, fighting inflammation, and reducing stiffness, in part by boosting blood circulation which has benefits for the heart, brain, and more, and by inducing changes in immune cell counts and function. Regular physical activity can help to manage symptoms of arthritis and other inflammation-related conditions that cause tense muscles, aches, and pains.
Candace, a HorizonbFit and ActiveFit+ member, says she’s had incredible success and motivation with the program specifically because it’s helped her customize her approach to workouts, nutrition, and overall mental health.
“I was one of those people that did not work out daily, ate unreasonably, and looked for an excuse to not workout because I looked fine (especially in clothes!). But now that I’m getting older, I want to be around as long as I can for my family,” she says. “I’m definitely learning through this program that health is wealth and a little bit of an incentive is the extra push I needed to make working out a lifestyle and not just a task.”
What are some other lifestyle habits that can increase women's ability to handle stress?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes enough protein, healthy fats, fiber, complex carbs, and antioxidants is key; together these keep you satisfied, manage your blood sugar, and keep your energy up.
Drinking enough water, and simultaneously avoiding sugary drinks and too much caffeine or alcohol, are also important habits for keeping your weight in check and your mood stable.
Make a point to get some sunshine and fresh air each day, which tends to have calming effects and also boosts vitamin D levels; vitamin D is an essential nutrient for the brain, heart, and immune health that a high percentage of adults are lacking because it's made predominantly when our skin is exposed to the sun, yet many of us live mostly indoor lives.
Candace says that using the Smart Walking features in her app has helped her keep track of her family walks in the park that bring some much-needed fresh air to debrief from her daily tasks of working from home full time while also assisting her kids with remote learning.
Doing digital detoxes every so often also comes recommended, such as by getting off your phone and other devices and instead focusing on relaxing activities like stretching, yoga, taking a bath, reading a book, journaling, or meditating (or all of these!). Not all screen time is bad, but try setting limits on how much scrolling through social media, news reading, etc. that you're doing most days by designating "no screen time" hours and places in your home.
How can you get started with an exercise program?
While some people are able to keep themselves accountable and workout regularly all on their own, others benefit from a customized workout and nutrition plans, enrolling in group fitness classes, or hiring a coach.
Depending on your personality, you might find that you're better able to stay active when you have outside encouragement and accountability, which can be the extra incentive needed to make working out a lifestyle and not just a task. If this sounds like you, consider Advanta's fitness programs and app, which has features like Smart Walking and ActiveFit-At-Home to track your daily steps and gradually make progress towards other fitness goals.