The Health Impact of COVID-19 On Parents Is Real—Here’s How to Make the Most of It

Annie Shaltz, NP
Nurse Practitioner
September 2, 2020

As parents we wear many hats: we’re our kids’ personal chefs, chauffeurs, laundry do-ers, boo-boo kissers, diaper changers, and much, much more. We are living through unprecedented times in which we, as a family unit, are home together… all the time… every day. In addition to juggling our domestic roles and our professional responsibilities, we have to navigate uncharted territory where we help our kids grapple with what’s going on around them. From addressing the loss of a loved one, to helping kids understand why they can’t see a friend or family member, to sharing physical space (all the time… every day), to making hard decisions like whether or not to send your kids back to school (or not having a choice), or changes in your family’s financial health, we, as parents are dealing with more stress than ever before.

How quarantine is taking a toll on parents’ health

We know that stress, real or implied, is a threat to the psychological or physiological health of the individual. The wear-and-tear of chronic stress can result in high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and changes in your brain that impair memory, executive functioning, and mood. Chances are if you’re a parent you were already managing chronic stress before the pandemic swept the globe. Public health ordinances such as social distancing can make people feel isolated and lonely, which exacerbates stress, and increases the risk of anxiety and depression. Add to that the already-existing disparities in domestic responsibilities between women and men , and you have a recipe for living, eating, and breathing stress non-stop.

It doesn’t help that many parents have had to shelf self-care to simply survive a day juggling kids, meetings, meals, and deadlines. As if it weren’t already a challenge to carve out time on a daily basis for movement, preliminary research shows that Americans are exercising less and sitting and looking at screens more and that due to social distancing measures there has been a 32 percent reduction in physical activity. (Thank goodness we can wear sweats at home though, right?!) Anxiety and depression peaked in mid-April . Shelter-in-place orders meant not only having our kids at home with us while working or looking for employment but limited opportunities for child care from grandparents and other caregivers. For many parents, this has meant taking “shifts” where you oversee childcare while your partner works, and vice versa. Many parents are working before their kids get up in the morning or into the evening after their kids are asleep. Others feel a blurred line between their role as a parent and their role in their professional life and feel as though they are not doing either particularly well. Routine has gone out the window.

For some parents, coping has meant not only an increase in the consumption of alcohol but also consuming alcohol in front of their children more often than pre-COVID life. Seeing a parent drink an alcoholic beverage can influence a child’s beliefs (either positive or negative) on alcohol consumption and can influence current or future behavior. That’s not to mention alcohol impairs the absorption of important nutrients, interrupts sleep , impacts hormones, and leads to weight gain.

We know that stress, less physical activity, and more alcohol can all impair your immune system , something we, as parents need to keep strong in order to do our jobs and take care of our kids (our other job).

Finding the support to manage stress and take care of ourselves in healthy, productive ways requires a commitment to ourselves. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Many parents are doing their best to turn lemons into lemonade.

Why quarantine can be a positive thing for your health and how to prioritize it

Despite our busy schedules it’s important to make time for our health. Parenting often gets in the way when you have responsibilities to care for your children. At Parsley Health we take a holistic approach to identifying and addressing the root cause of your health concerns. Our providers and health coaches work on personalized goals with action steps for you to enhance vitality and quality of life, and yes, that means helping you to manage stress and make new healthy routines, even when the rest of the world feels like chaos. These are just a few ways you can start reprioritizing your health now.

Meal prep ahead and eat together

As life has slowed down, and many of us are no longer commuting to and from work and schlepping our kids to school or activities, we have more time together. Families who eat meals together tend to eat more nutritious food and get the recommended 5-7 servings of fruit and veggies on their plates. Kids eat a wider array of food and tend to be less picky. Family meals help prevent obesity as it allows us to talk more and connect and, in turn, we eat slower, which promotes satiety. With fewer trips to the grocery store these days I often recommend my patients’ meal plan for the week. This is a great opportunity for kids to have a say in what’s on their plate, and expose them to new things. Not only does it save money on groceries, but it saves every parent the dreaded feeling of “what am I going to make for dinner tonight”.

Move your body, better yet, move your body as a family.

As shelter-in-place ordinances have lifted, beaches, trails, and parks are opening up more. If you don’t have access to these kinds of places then a good old fashioned walk around the neighborhood will do. If you have little kids, put them in the stroller/ wagon or on bikes and go at your own pace. There are yoga classes for kids online, so move the coffee table out of the way and stretch your body as a family. Research shows that when parents are physically active, kids are more likely to be active as well.  If you can steal 30-60 minutes to yourself to exercise, even better! There are tons of online classes available. Our team has put together resources for our members who have had to shift from their usual movement routines like going to the gym or studio classes, to help find movement that resonates and is do-able. Even a simple pair of weights in a corner of your home will suffice.

Find a daily relaxation practice.

Now, if you’re a parent reading this and you’re laughing to yourself, take a moment and ask yourself, do you have 2-5 minutes in your day where you can just sit and breath? The answer is yes. At Parsley Health we prescribe meditation to each and every patient. And if meditation isn’t your jam there are many other relaxation practices that can help you achieve the same goal. One of my personal faves that I often recommend to my patients (and actually do myself every night) is Heart Math . Consistent use even over a short period of time (six weeks) can improve anxiety, depression, fatigue , sleep quality, concentration, and calmness – uh, yes please! Heart Math allows you to tap into the loving feelings you get from your close relationships, or from times you’ve cared for others. This is why it’s so great for parents. These feelings improve your heart rate variability and allow you to shift from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state, to a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state.

Support your microbiome.

Our gut houses its own incredible garden of microorganisms that help us digest food, make mood-balancing neurotransmitters, influence our weight, support hormone health, not to mention it houses the largest reservoir of our immune system. As a family unit, we already share a similar gut microbiome. Couples share the most similar microbiome, but by age three to five, your little tykes have a similar microbiome. Diet and antibiotic use can have a huge impact on the composition of an individual’s microbiome, but social interactions through physical contact also influence what’s in your gut. So keep hugging and kissing your kids, your partner, and make time for physical intimacy. While you’re meal planning for the week consider adding in pre- and probiotic-rich foods. A high-quality probiotic can also support your gut health . So as we venture out into the world, donning our masks, we have added support to keep all of us well.

Annie Shaltz, NP
Nurse Practitioner

Annie Shaltz, NP, is a board-certified Adult-Gerontological Primary Care Nurse Practitioner. She earned her master’s degree from NYU as a nurse practitioner with a holistic specialization, which exposed her to a wide array of healing modalities, including functional medicine. Annie marries her clinical expertise with her holistic nursing background, sense of humor, and compassion.

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