Throughout most of human history, the pattern of daily life was regular. Dreary for many, but regular. In recent centuries, "modern" life has introduced many irregularities, including changing work schedules. Advances in information technology mean that many of us are always connected -- and that we spend time connecting at all hours. And the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced whole new irregularities into daily life.
One thing is certain: "When your schedule changes, you can lose the regular self-care routines that kept you active, eating right, and managing stress -- things we need to control weight and inflammation and fight disease," says Dr. Monique Tello, a primary care physician and healthy lifestyle specialist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Are you recently retired and reveling in newfound freedom to go to sleep and wake up at different times each day? Or are you working, often putting off bedtime to write one more email?
An inconsistent sleep schedule throws off your circadian rhythm, the body's internal clock. "If you go to bed before your circadian sleep time, you will have difficulty falling asleep. Stay up too late, and you will likely wake up before you are fully refreshed. Either way, an irregular schedule leads to difficulty getting sufficient sleep, causing chronic sleep deprivation, mood and thinking skills problems, and an increased risk for heart disease, obesity, and diabetes," says Dr. Lawrence Epstein, associate physician with the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Circadian rhythm also affects hunger and metabolism (your body's process of expending energy and burning calories). Ignore your circadian rhythm, and you could experience more hunger and slower metabolism (an impaired ability to burn calories).
Being at home all the time can disrupt daily meal schedules, particularly for working people. "When you're home, you're closer to the kitchen and it's easy to get a snack. Eating throughout the day means your blood sugar levels and insulin will be up all the time, and it's impossible for the body to burn fat. That can lead to weight gain. You need periods of time when you're not eating to allow your body to burn fat stores," Dr. Tello says.
Exercise habits often fall by the wayside when there are schedule changes. "Sometimes when people retire, their workout routine gets disrupted and they may not form a new one," Dr. Tello says. If you're working more hours, you may feel you don't have the time to exercise.
One result: "We've been seeing more people complaining of back pain and pain radiating down the leg," Dr. Tello says. "It's from too much sitting, which leads to weak core muscles and pain."
A lack of daily moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) also hurts sleep, digestion, mood, thinking skills, mobility, stress management, and weight control, while increasing the risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression, and several types of cancer, particularly breast and colon cancers. Too much sitting is linked to premature death.
A change in your activities may affect your ability to stick to a medication schedule. "I understand -- things happen. You may get caught up in an activity and forget to take your medication," Dr. Tello says. "Or maybe you've been prescribed a new medication with four doses per day, and you're not sure how to make it work with the rest of your regimen."
But sometimes skipping even one dose poses health risks. For example, if you have Parkinson's disease and forget to take your pill, you may experience muscle freezing and be unable to move.
Downtime is often lost with changes in work or family responsibilities. "This happens to a lot of caregivers. They recognize that they need time to relax, but they don't have time or they feel like they don't deserve it," Dr. Tello says.
But downtime is considered part of self-care. Doing activities that keep you centered helps ward off stress. "Stress creates a cascade of events in the body leading to inflammation, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. It can lead to cardiovascular disease and depression and other mental health disorders," Dr. Tello notes.
Conversely, retiring can leave you with so much time on your hands you can't figure out how to use it in a meaningful way, which can also be stressful.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Take action when you recognize imbalance in your schedule.
Reschedule your sleep. "You sleep best when the time you sleep matches your circadian rhythm," Dr. Epstein says. "Some people are born night owls, and others are born early risers. Figure out which you are, then go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day so it works with your rhythm. You need seven to eight hours of sleep per night."
A regular wake time and exposure to morning sunlight will help your body adjust. At night, turn off electronic screens at least 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime -- light from monitors and devices can disrupt your circadian rhythm.
Set a meal schedule. Aim for three healthy meals per day, and two healthy snacks if you need them. Choose meal times in advance and stick to them. If it's hard to make the switch, keep a food journal to identify patterns and figure out where you're going wrong, especially if you've gained weight.
Recommit to an exercise regimen. Having activity scheduled into your day will make you more likely to do it. You don't have to go to a gym. Try a home workout video, go for a walk, take regular activity breaks, or get a standing desk if you work from home.
Reconsider your medication plan. "Take medications when you do other daily activities, like brushing your teeth," Dr. Tello suggests. "Use a pillbox. Set an alarm on your smartphone. And ask your doctor if any of your medications can be prescribed in fewer doses."
Set work boundaries. If possible, come up with a set of times when you're available, even after hours--such as between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. -- and let your co-workers know this is when they can reach you. Resist the temptation to break the rules.
Manage stress. "A solid stress management regimen is essential," Dr. Tello says. "It can be meditation, yoga, prayer, sitting outside in nature, or anything that helps you disconnect from stressful events or activities, pause, and reflect. It should be something you do daily, even just for 10 minutes. Before you know it, it will become a habit."