It’s been just over one year since the CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States. Twelve months of lockdowns, disrupted routines, and countless hours of remote work and Zoom meetings have taken their toll on our individual and collective health. Many people have been isolated from their favorite exercise and nutritional support communities, and have spent so much time worrying about the day-to-day stress of life in a pandemic that they’ve lost the time and energy to prioritize their own mental, physical, and emotional needs.
In part three of our series about The Road Ahead in 2021, we’ve got two of the most sought after experts in movement, nutrition, and adapting under stress to share advice and practical steps for taking your life back. Adam Rosante, is a strength and nutrition coach, and Dr. Theresa Larson is a physical therapist, combat veteran, and founder of Movement Rx, a digital rehab center and corporate wellness platform. Contributor Suzanne Krowiak spoke with them about moving forward in the months ahead. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
First up is Rosante, one of the world’s premier strength and nutrition coaches. He trains A-list celebrities, entertainment industry leaders, and athletes in-person and remotely from his studio on the east coast, and is the best-selling author of The 30-Second Body: Eat Clean, Train Hard, Live Dirty. Adam is also a Certified Youth Exercise Specialist and Level 3 Certified Trauma Coach, and creator of Gym Class with Adam, a free online exercise program for kids. He also works to make healthy food accessible to children through his not-for-profit organization, Good Eats.
Suzanne Krowiak: There seems to be this feeling in the culture that everyone is moving less during COVID since so many people are working from home. Do you think we’re fundamentally using our bodies differently as a result of the pandemic?
Adam Rosante: Potentially, but it depends on the individual. I don’t know that I agree across the board with the idea that people are moving less. People are still working at a desk. Whether that desk is in a corporate building or in a spare bedroom that they’ve converted into an office, they’re still sitting in a flexed hip position with their shoulders rounded forward and their face in a screen. And if you live anywhere other than a city with mass transit, even before COVID you were going from your bed to your bathroom to your kitchen to your car to your desk. The walk is probably happening in very short intervals between those geographical points. I think for people who live in urban settings, their movement may have been compressed because they’re not walking to a subway or the office or a lunch spot. But I know many, many corporate folks who don’t leave their desk for lunch. They order in and it’s very sedentary. I know a lot of people that are actually moving more now. They’ve gone from living in a city to living in a more natural environment, and they begin each day with a walk or hike. They’re taking advantage of the outdoors more than they ever did before. I know that I certainly am; sometimes I go on two or three hikes a day.
SK: How has that impacted your physical and mental health?
AR: Absolutely remarkable. I think being in and close to nature is one of the most important things for human beings. There are far smarter people than I who have dedicated their life’s work to proving the scientific benefits of being in nature, and a very quick Google search will give you plenty of peer-reviewed studies. It’s not a joke; it’s not placebo. There are real changes that happen in the brain and body when you’re close to nature. And on top of that, you’re naturally getting more movement by walking around or hiking.
SK: Is there any recurring physical issue or complaint that you’ve heard from your clients during the pandemic?
AR: What I’m finding more than anything else, whether it’s my clients or other folks, is dealing with the effects of COVID cocktails. You know how everybody talks about gaining the quarantine 15? A lot of that had to do with wine. And it’s just making a shift from being totally tucked in to being a little bit more mindful of the choices we’re making with the food and liquids we’re putting into our body.
SK: If someone’s struggling with the quarantine 15, or just feeling the emotional weight of living in a pandemic for the last year, what’s the first thing you recommend they do?
AR: Get clear on what you want. That comes first. You’re nothing without clarity. Shake it off, forget about the past, see where you are right now, and sit with that. Take out a pen and paper and start writing. Write about how you feel— where it is that you want to go and what do you want to achieve? How do you want to feel in your body? Are there any goals associated with that? If you sit and write for a while you’ll inevitably be able to pick out some things that are more or less goals. Because a goal is nothing more than something you want that you don’t already have. Pull those to the side and make a plan to get there. Nothing is as powerful as a personal goal.
SK: Do you have a go-to nutrition tip?
AR: I would say that the single greatest thing anybody can do is drink more water. I absolutely guarantee you the majority of people reading this aren’t drinking anywhere near enough water, and that’s a problem for a number of reasons. If your tissues and organs aren’t sufficiently hydrated your metabolism won’t work properly, your muscles can’t contract properly, and your brain’s not going to function properly. Fascia and tissue function the way they’re supposed to when they’re hydrated, and get gunked up when they’re not. I’ve had clients who started to feel worlds different just from increasing their water intake. Mental clarity improves, sleep improves, the way they move improves. Everything improves.
SK: How much water do you recommend daily?
AR: Half your body weight in ounces is the easiest thing. Just take your body weight, cut that number in half, and drink that many ounces every day. Buy yourself a nice looking refillable water bottle instead of trying to track how much you drink from random vessels throughout the day. Most refillable water bottles will tell you how many ounces they hold, but if they don’t, just use your kitchen measuring cup to fill it up. Then do some simple math to see how many of those bottles you need to drink before the end of the day. So for example, if you weigh 200 pounds, you need to drink 100 ounces every day. If your water bottle holds 20 ounces, you need to drink five of those before the end of the day. And if you really want to gamify it, throw five rubber bands on the bottle and pull a rubber band off every time you drain it. Your goal by the end of the day is to have zero bands on the bottle. It’s fun because it feels like you’re playing a game and gives your brain a little hit of dopamine.
SK: Does it matter what time of day people drink the water?
AR: No. My best advice is to stop overthinking it. People want six tips to perfect water consumption, but we have to stop with that. Just drink the water. It’s not complicated. You’re a human being with a brilliant brain in your head. You do not need a manual for how to drink enough water; you just need a little guidance from a science perspective about how much. But here’s one thing that I will say— if you’re 200 pounds and currently drinking something like half a glass of water every day, going from half a glass to 100 ounces is a quantum leap. And all of the psychological research— which matches my personal experience with hundreds of clients— tells you that the fastest way to fail is to take on too much too soon. The key to lasting change is small steps taken every day. So if you’re currently drinking basically no water and your goal is 100 ounces, anything more than what you’re currently drinking is a good start. And then level up from there. Maybe you set a goal to drink 20 ounces the first week. Then 40 ounces in week two and 60 ounces week three. By your fourth week, you’re like, “hey, this is easy now. I’m 100 ounces a day without blinking.” Just make a plan for yourself.
SK: If people are struggling with food after a year of lockdowns and want to take some action to feel better about what they’re putting in their bodies, what would you recommend?
AR: Start by eating more green vegetables. Here’s the real down and dirty of it— the easiest way to simplify it is to think in palm-sized portions. If you’re a male by birth, have two palm-sized portions of protein at each meal, so basically six servings per day. For veggies, eat six fist-sized portions throughout the day. If they’re green, you can have more. If you’re a woman, same exact principle, just cut it in half. And those can be eaten at any time, but the easiest way for a normal human being to do it is to break them into three meals— breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
SK: Do you have a favorite protein?
AR: I don’t necessarily have a consistent go-to . . . . But I love it all. I love steak, love chicken, love fish. Your protein doesn’t need to come from an animal source, it just needs to be complete and sufficient.
SK: As bad as the year has been, what can we keep from it? What do you hope people walk away from this year with?
AR: Hmm, that’s a great question. I would say I hope with a deeper connection to themselves and the people that they love. If they have a family, with their family. But I hope that it gave them an opportunity to gain clarity on what was really important to them, what was actually essential, and what was really just superfluous. Here’s the thing— each one of us has the capacity to change in a state of pain and suffering, or in a state of joy and inspiration. So, given the option, which would you choose?
SK: Well, joy, but that’s hard. It’s connecting to intention, and making it a physical, mental, and emotional practice to learn through joy instead of pain, right?
AR: Right. But that’s the key. Everything is a mastering of your mentality. So if the only way to make a change was if things were going to shit, then every single person who has ever lived would have only ever had made a change in their life when things were terrible. But that’s not the case. There are countless numbers of people who have, at every age and every circumstance— in states of pure joy— made even greater positive changes in their life. So it’s possible. You don’t need a catastrophe to have a positive outcome; we just happen to be living through a really challenging time for a lot of people. And so my hope is that it helps people clarify what’s important to them and get some lightness in their heart and lives. I know that can be extraordinarily difficult when we’re facing some of the challenges that so many people are right now, but just try to take some time to get quiet, be still, and think about what you want your life to look like. What does one perfect day look like for you, from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you tuck yourself in at night? Write about it until your forearm burns and your wrist cramps up. And then read it and see how that makes you feel.
SK: What if it makes you feel overwhelmed?
AR: That’s perfectly fine, that’s normal. If everybody had the same reaction to a thing, the world would be a very boring place. If it makes you feel overwhelmed, take a breath, slow down, and realize that there’s no one here putting you on a game show to do this in 60 seconds or less. These are the things that you want deep in your heart. Can that be overwhelming? Yes. It could be fear. “Yikes, things haven’t worked out for me in the past and I’m afraid to admit that I want this because I’m terrified I’m going to fail at it.” Those feelings will almost inevitably come up, especially if you let yourself dream as big as you should. And big is a relative term. You don’t need to dream that you want a Ferrari. Maybe you do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But each person has a version of a perfect life that is uniquely their own. Getting clear on it can feel a little scary, but you’ve got to take the handcuffs off and dream big. Once you identify what you want and make a list to achieve it, that’s your marching plan. But you actually have to do it. All the personal development exercises like visualization and meditation and written clarity about goals are wonderful, but you still have to do it. A phrase that I use a lot is “cut the shit, and do the thing.” At a certain point, you’re train wrecking yourself. If one thing you picked off your list was to improve your health by drinking more water every day, cleaning up your diet, or exercising three times a week, you have to put it on the calendar and start moving. Cut the shit and do the thing.
SK: Do you feel like you’re a master of your mentality?
SK: Do you remember the moment where you thought to yourself “I feel like I got this?”
AR: No, because I work on it every day. I’ve been working on it every day for 20 years. There are times when it’s much harder than others, but it’s a daily practice to be a master of your own mind. There was no singular moment where I suddenly felt like Neo in the Matrix, seeing through things. That may happen for sages throughout the centuries, but for most people it’s a process, and it ebbs and flows. Is there something dragging you down? See what it is and step away from it. That might be uncomfortable. But if you want to feel better and live better, it’s an important part of the process.
SK: It’s a good reminder because after a tough year like this people convince themselves they don’t have the skills to feel or live better in their bodies. It can look like climbing a steep mountain instead of taking small, intentional steps.
AR: 100%. It feels like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and that’s daunting, especially for somebody who’s never climbed a mountain before. “How am I going to do that? Are you kidding me? No.” But if you have a really great guide, whether it’s the goals you wrote on the page, a coach you work with, or a program you joined, you can glean wisdom from that and treat it as your guide. Take a couple of little steps. “We’re just going to go 15 feet, and then we’re going to grab a seat and hang out for a little bit. And then we’ll go for another 30 feet. Little by little.” And before you know it, you and your guide are standing at the summit overlooking this grand vista. That’s how things are done.
Adam’s tips to jump-start your health goals today:
Get recipes for his free, seven-day green smoothie challenge. “It’s not a cleanse or fast. Just swap your current breakfast for a nutrient-dense smoothie. What often happens is it creates a halo effect over the rest of the day. Maybe you’ll want to have something healthier for lunch and dinner. And maybe not, but at least you packed a world of nutrients into a glass in the morning.”
Follow him on Instagram, where he posts nutrition and movement tips, including ten-minute workouts you can do at home with minimal or no equipment necessary.
Dr. Theresa Larson is a physical therapist, former Marine Corps Engineer, combat veteran, and author of Warrior: A Memoir. She’s the co-creator of Functional Training for Adaptive Athletes, a program for fitness trainers working with disabled or injured athletes, including combat veterans injured in the line of duty. Larson is also the co-creator of Movement Rx, which combines the resources of a physical therapy practice, digital rehab program, and corporate wellness platform that provides programming on everything from reducing joint pain to stress management.
Suzanne Krowiak: Adaptation is a recurring theme in your work and life. Can you talk about what that word means to you, especially in the context of living through a global pandemic?
Dr. Theresa Larson: Adapting, in general, means change. On a cellular level, our body is adapting all the time to positions we hold. If you look at the 30,000 ft level, the question becomes “Okay, how are we all adapting to this current environment?” The faster we adapt, the happier and more successful we’ll be. Many of us have been working from home, and that’s a blended work/home environment, so how can we change quickly to be successful? Companies had to adapt to keep the lights on. I’ve had to adapt my fitness and mental health practices to stay healthy during this time. I believe I’m pretty good at that already, having gone from the Marine Corps to war to graduate school to my physical therapy career. I love figuring out my environment on the fly, adapting and overcoming.
And then there’s adaptive training we do with individuals who are temporarily or permanently injured. People who have a brain injury, lost a limb, or are in a wheelchair. There are emotional things that come up with all of this. How do you adapt to this new normal?
SK: Can you talk about the concept of a “new normal,” and how it can be understood in different circumstances?
TL: A new normal for some Marines is getting a leg blown off in combat. Now they have a different leg and that’s their life now— their new normal. How can they optimize this new normal? Because people are going to suffer more if they don’t adapt to a new normal. We see it everywhere.
“I wish we were out of the coronavirus pandemic.”
“I wish I had the body I had 10 years ago.”
“I wish I still could do the things I used to do pre-injury.”
You can wish for those things, but it’s just not so. What’s so is we’re in a pandemic. What’s so is that you’re in a wheelchair. What’s so is you have a missing leg, so let’s adapt to this new position we’re in and be the best we can be in it. We’re going to suffer more when we don’t accept it.
SK: What could that suffering look like if we refuse to adapt to a new normal?
TL: The thing to know is you’re going to adapt anyway. Your body will change on a cellular level because of an injury, or whatever you’ve been through. But if you choose not to embrace or optimize the change, you’ll be more mentally fatigued. You won’t be able to cope as well. You might start doing numbing behaviors like watching a lot of TV or spending all of your time on your phone, disconnected from your friends and family. You might be angry all the time. Physically, you’ll start to atrophy faster. But if you say “Okay, I can adapt to what’s happening now. I can figure out how to work from home, I can create boundaries in the blended work/home environment.” And you’re not alone in this. People can help you. We can help you. I know it’s hard. I’m telling you, I’ve really struggled. But I’m using all the resources I can to make myself as healthy as possible because I know my life and my family will benefit from it.
SK: What would you say to folks who feel like they’ve lost all control of their lives and health in the last year with all its challenges and uncertainty?
TL: We have a lot more control over our own lives and health than we think. I’ve had some colleagues lose their gyms or lose their practices, and it sucks. It’s heartbreaking. The question becomes can we use our wounds as wisdom? What can we do with that energy? The wounds of the heartbreak of the last year—the loss of people, the injuries, the businesses. There’s wisdom in those things. It’s not easy. But the more you can turn it around and use that wisdom to move forward, the more successful you can be.
SK: You design wellness programs for companies and organizations all over the country. What are you hearing from them about the challenges their employees are facing as a result of the pandemic?
TL: People are a lot more fatigued mentally and physically because the work environment is so blended with the home environment. They’re working at all hours, they’re on the phone more. They don’t know how to create boundaries. And people are really looking for ways to make fitness fun and quick. They want ten minute workouts that allow them to get movement in between calls, or at the beginning or end of the workday. Things they can do with their family. We’re also talking a lot more about mental health through the physical body.
SK: What do you mean by that?
TL: We’re trying to bring movement and mindfulness to the work-from-home environment. Maybe it’s creating a space to practice mindfulness meditation, or just be more mindful about the way you go about your day by setting boundaries and taking breaks. It can make a big difference.
SK: Why is the mindfulness piece so important to you?
TL: Because mindfulness has been a really important part of my own healing journey. I’ve struggled with mental health issues, and to have the ability to physiologically create more calm in my body from doing mindfulness meditation has been huge. And when I get triggered by something, I know how to take movement breaks and what to do. It doesn’t have to be a workout. But these things I’m teaching have been very powerful in my life, and I love helping people get wins in their own environments right now. Even something as simple as showing them how to build their own ergonomically sound workspace from cardboard boxes and books is really run for me.
SK: Wait, so you also help people build desks out of cardboard boxes?
TL: Yes. I was a Marine Corps Engineer Officer and my job was blowing stuff up and building things. Now, I help people manage their work stations at home. If you have to work at your coffee table, let’s make your setup the best it can be for your neck and shoulders. Let’s get you in a better position. I adapt the body to the workstation, or the workstation to the body, so people can align themselves in a way that their spine is in a good position. That way they don’t have constant aches and pains from looking down too much or rounding their lower back for hours.
SK: What’s one thing people can do at home to make their work setup better for their bodies?
TL: You know that song, Stop in the Name of Love? When I teach seminars, I tell people to put your arm out straight in front of you with your hand up like they do in the video. That’s how far away your computer screen should be from your face. Once you’ve done that, extend your hand and straighten it, and where it lands is where the center of your monitor should be. So the computer is an arm’s length away, and high enough that when you extend your hand, you touch the center of your monitor. That way your neck isn’t looking up or down, you’re just looking straight ahead. I even say that to my son when he’s watching his iPad. “Arm’s distance away, dude. Arm’s distance away.”
SK: What’s one thing people can do on days when they’re really struggling with the mental fatigue you talked about earlier?
TL: My suggestion would be to have a break between calls, and if you don’t have that option, take a call outside in the sun. Turn off the video if you’re doing Zoom so you don’t have to look at your screen. And you can mention it to the people who expect you to be on the call. Say “I’m going to just be on my phone. I’ll be focused, I just need to sit outside and rest my eyes.”
SK: Any quick fitness tip for those working at home? You mentioned earlier that people are looking for something they can do that’s fun and doesn’t take a lot of time.
TL: One suggestion I have is to do it at the beginning or end of your work day because it can offer a nice transition between home life and work life. If you’re by yourself, set a timer for ten minutes and pick two movements, one upper body and one lower body. For upper body you could do push-ups or crawl. For lower body you could do squats, or jump squats, or lunges. Anything, really. Just pick an upper body and lower body exercise, and add a quick run in between. I have little kids, so what it might look like in my household is I’ll do 10 squats, 10 push-ups, and then chase my son on his bike for 100 yards. I’ll come back and repeat the same thing. And he loves to be part of the chase, so maybe he’ll jump off his bike and do squats with me, or maybe not. Either way, I’m engaging in this way for 10 minutes. It makes it easy and the time goes quickly.
SK: Right now we’re still dealing with the consequences of the pandemic all over the world, but there are several vaccines available and people are starting to get their shots. What does adaptation look like during these in-between times, when there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still pretty dark for a lot of folks?
TL: In these adaptation periods there will always be transitions. As a country, we’re transitioning now to more remote work. The pandemic will end at some point, but no matter what, there will always be remote work. And some awful things have happened. We’ve lost a lot of lives. I think it’s important to be innovative in this period and for people to turn these wounds into something. Because even if the pandemic ends tomorrow, it’s going to take a while for everything to come back. The best thing you can do is embrace the fact that it’s going to take some time, so what do you want your life to look like right now? You might not land your dream job right away or your company may not come back overnight. You might just be sustaining for the moment, but how can you make your immediate life— yours and your family’s—healthier right now? If you can withstand this change and be open, other opportunities might pop up that you can embrace if your job or life isn’t working the way you thought it would. There are things that you can control, so what are those things? The reality is we have this pandemic and we don’t when it’s going to end. That’s the fact. How can we change the story of our lives around it? When I boil it down to what we really do, it’s helping people get more connected to the precious present. Because when you’re focused on the precious present, you want to move your body. You want to be present with your family. You’re just there. And that brings more happiness.
Dr. Larson’s tips for a better work-from-home environment:
Build your own inexpensive and ergonomic workspace. In this video, Dr. Larson gives step-by-step guidance on creating a desk that reduces discomfort and lowers your risk for chronic systemic disease.
Learn how mindfulness techniques can reduce stress and improve performance. Listen to this conversation between Dr. Larson and biofeedback therapist Jim Cahill about mindfulness and mental resilience, and check out this seminar movement and mindfulness from Dr. Larson and retired Navy SEAL commander Jon Macaskill.
Coming up next in our fourth and final article of The Road Ahead series, we’ll look at how the pandemic upended the group fitness industry, and the potential for a fundamental realignment in the way studios and gyms do business.
Erin Paruszewski is the founder of Alkalign, a California-based boutique studio that was in the process of a major expansion and franchise launch when COVID-19 hit. “When I started Alkalign, my mission was to help as many people as I could feel better, and I thought the way to do that was to build brick and mortar businesses— to have these communities all over,” says Paruszewski. “What I’ve come to realize is that I can still accomplish my mission, just in a different way. I can potentially reach many more people virtually. It took me a while to wrap my head around that, but once I had a full-on pity party at the beginning of COVID and spent time crying and saying ‘It’s never going to be the same,’ I actually understood it could be better.”
And what about group fitness instructors? What should they be prepared for when things open back up to large groups?
Tune Up Fitness co-founder Jill Miller has been thinking a lot about this question. “I’m going to be very aware when I enter spaces again as a teacher that it may take a while for people to emerge and trust,” says Miller. “Some may fear large groups, or being in close proximity to others. After sixteen, seventeen, or more months of not being around people, how will we have adapted our idea of personal space? In our group fitness world, we need to give permission to our students to let their grief inform them, and help them feel nurtured and supported.”
More to come in Part 4…. If you missed the last article in “The Road Ahead” series, The COVID Effect: How Pandemic Life Changed Our Brains and Breath, and What We Can Do To Transform Our Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health in 2021, we highly recommend you give it a read.