During the pandemic, it’s been easy to lose track of things. Many of us have occasionally lost sight of time as the days spent working from home tend to blur together. Disconnected, we might have forgotten to check in on our favorite televisions shows, sports teams, or even current events. And as we pull out our summer wardrobe from a year ago, a lot of us are starting to notice that we haven’t exactly stayed on top of our weight.
A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that 42 percent of U.S. adults are reporting undesired weight gain since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, those respondents say they’ve gained 29 pounds during that time. Another study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) collected data from Bluetooth-connected smart scales found that those people gained an average of nearly 2 pounds every month. Experts don’t believe that’s a coincidence.
Why did I gain weight during the pandemic?
“It’s been a terrible time for the patients I counsel,” says Jenny Hegmann, MS, RD, LDN, a licensed bariatric dietician at the Center for Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery North Andover office at Lowell General Hospital, an affiliate of Tufts Medical Center. “All the patients I see have struggled more than usual during this time. The pandemic has amplified the things that tend to cause people to gain weight.”
The reasons behind people gaining the so-called “COVID 15” are not new. But as Hegmann points out, the circumstances surrounding the pandemic—the lockdowns and economic downturn—have worsened the impact of several key risk factors in weight gain. They include:
- Increased stress due to economic uncertainty, added responsibility with children remote learning from the home, fear of the virus itself, and an overall sense of isolation that can lead to stress eating.
- Anxiety can also lead to lack of quality sleep that can impact your metabolism.
- With more people working from home or unemployed, there is breakdown in meal structure and easier access to snacks.
- There might be an extra reliance on fast food from the drive-thru because of a reluctance to go to the grocery store or a sit-down restaurant that emphasizes healthier eating.
- With gyms closed and public parks and recreation areas more crowded, people might decide to stay home where they experience a general lack of physical activity and exercise.
- Due to unease about being in a hospital or clinical setting, many people might be putting off important medical appointments and health screenings, including consultations about their weight.
Results of weight gain
The overall result of this weight gain is much more serious than the mere inconvenience of having to buy a new bathing suit. Being overweight or obese is associated with increased risk of everything from diabetes to heart disease to stroke to certain types of cancer. Even gaining a few extra pounds can impact blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and sleep apnea. And once you put on that weight, it’s difficult to turn back the clock.
“We know the statistics of how hard it is to take weight off,” says Jillian Reece, RD, LDN, CSOWM, Clinical Bariatric Dietician at the Weight and Wellness Center at Tufts Medical Center. “Even if you lose weight, it’s much easier to put it back on than to keep it off. And it’s easy for that to get out of control. That’s why it’s important to get back in better patterns right now.”
How to get your weight under control
Dieticians Reece and Hegmann have suggestions on how to do just that. They both know that it’s difficult to control the amount of stress you experience, especially during this unprecedented time. But you can find new and more productive ways to deal with that stress. Instead of using food as a coping mechanism, Reece suggests instituting new behaviors. For instance, listening to relaxing music or even taking up yoga. In fact, finding any way to be physically active—from going for a hike to just walking around the house—can both help relieve stress and have the added benefit of burning calories in your fight to maintain weight.
There are other ways to build exercise back into your schedule as well. Instead of going to a crowded gym where you might not feel safe, the warming weather means that more parks and outdoors areas will be open. And if you still don’t feel safe in public, there are apps, YouTube videos, and home-based equipment like resistance bands that you can pull out for a quick workout.
“Try to look at exercise in snack-sized portions,” says Reece. “Grab movement in smaller chunks between five and 15 minutes. Just walk into the room next door, go up and down the stairs a couple times, or take a couple of laps around the yard.”