A person unravels their yoga mat for a workout.
A few stretches on a yoga mat can revitalize your body—and you can do it in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Women filling the family roles of chief cuddler and nurturer often slight their own self-care.

While they’re tending to a daily barrage of boo-boos or helping out with homework assignments, it’s all too easy to overlook their own care.

And this era of COVID-19 has certainly complicated things.

Contact with others is kept to a minimum. Additional duties have arisen with at-home schooling and work-at-home arrangements.

In this environment, even small amounts of self-neglect can add up and contribute to chronic illnesses, said Kristi Artz, MD, medical director of lifestyle medicine and virtual health at Spectrum Health.

“When we don’t make ourselves a priority, it’s typically because we’re suffering from a higher degree of stress,” Dr. Artz said. “Often, that also means we’re not doing the things that make us feel better, like exercising or connecting with friends.

“And instead of eating foods that nurture us, we resort to eating the kinds of food that contribute to chronic disease,” she said.

When women neglect themselves, it can negatively affect the people they care for, too.

“Women are often gatekeepers to the health of other family members,” Dr. Artz said. “They are often the ones who get others to the doctor and are in charge of what’s in the pantry.”

The good news? As gatekeepers, these women also have outsized power in setting positive examples.

“By modeling behaviors of self-care, bringing helpful words, foods and meals into the home, these healthy habits automatically influence those around you,” Dr. Artz said.

It’s vital to think of self-care in broad terms, she said.

Sure, it’s about staying up to date on medications and doctors’ appointments.

But it’s just as essential to beef up on core lifestyle habits that keep people healthiest. Drink plenty of water, engage in regular physical activity, eat fresh veggies and fruits, get enough sleep. Strength training and resistance training can also do wonders.

These habits play an important role in preventing and managing chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer and COPD. They can also combat migraines and aches and pains.

Dr. Artz offers practical tips for building core lifestyle behaviors into daily routines.

Start with a pen and paper

Because we often have a long mental list of to-dos, it’s sometimes helpful to make a written list of all the benefits that more self-care could bring, Dr. Artz said.

Proper care can deliver a host of benefits, starting with a reduced stress level. Make that item No. 1 on your list and then grow from there.

Buddy up

Accountability buddies are a great way to keep changes on track. Knowing you are checking in with someone, even virtually, is proven to make exercise and nutrition efforts more successful.

Aim small, initially

Trying to blast off 15 pounds of COVID weight can seem daunting and discouraging. Conversely, small wins can build confidence.

“So maybe you try to go without meat one day a week, add five minutes of mindfulness each day or take a 10-minute walk every other day,” Dr. Artz said. “As you achieve these smaller goals, you can add to them.”

Look for magic moments

Don’t be afraid to sandwich moments of self-care into a busy routine.

Dr. Artz leaves a yoga mat out to stretch on while she waits for her coffee to brew in the morning. She does a few squats while using the microwave.

“Our bodies are meant to move and they feel better when we do,” she said. “Even short bursts revitalize us.”

Experiment with healthy

Dr. Artz, who works closely with the Spectrum Health Culinary Medicine team, has been a strong advocate for plant-based eating.

While there’s no need to go all-in on a vegetarian or Mediterranean diet, it can be inspiring to dabble a little and see how delicious new foods can be, Dr. Artz said.

For a good start, check out Spectrum Health’s cooking classes.

Step into the sun

Even during the winter, short outdoor walks will bust stress and boost your mood.

“Just stepping outside my front door to walk is an important part of managing my own stress,” Dr. Artz said.

Don’t fall into the trap of equating self-care with fluffy cliches like bubble baths and manicures. Proper care—in the form of healthy lifestyle decisions—can save your life.

“Lifestyle habits cause 70% of chronic disease,” Dr. Artz said. “It’s not so much our DNA and genetic influences, but what we do every day that predicts our health.”

Changes, even small ones, can compound over time. This can dramatically affect your health and longevity, she said.

“Lifestyle is medicine,” she said.