COVID-19 and Weight Gain: Why “Pandemic Pounds” Happen and How to Say Goodbye to Them

Dawn Bevier

When the virus spread out of control, so did the numbers on the scale, but they don’t have to stay there

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For almost a whole year we’ve continued to lock ourselves away because venturing outside our own four walls presents a threat that could cost us our lives. As time passed, many of our COVID lockdown requirements were lifted, but a recent Gallup poll indicates that many of us are still working from home, citing that 33% of employees are fully remote and 18% to 25% are working remotely at least some of the time. In addition, information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that even though employment rates have risen, 6.9 % of Americans are still unemployed, meaning that 11.1 million people are currently jobless.

There is no doubt these changes precipitated by the pandemic have caused great upheaval in American daily living, adding increased stressors to an already emotionally drained national population. And unfortunately, these new struggles have also had another negative side effect, namely that of adding extra pounds to our country’s citizens.

COVID related weight gain has even been given lighthearted names such as “COVID curves” and “The Quarantine 15,” but for those who have watched the numbers on the scale continually rise, the situation is not a humorous one.

Reasons for COVID based weight gain

Being Sedentary

You know those 10,000 steps we’ve been advised to take every day to keep the pounds at bay? Most of us never managed to take that many steps before this pandemic, and now we're taking even less of them.

Think of all the walking you did pre-pandemic without even trying. Trips to the mall picking out new school clothes for your children or just checking out the latest fashions. Trips back and forth to the mailroom or copier at work. Trips simply taken to your closet, bathroom, and to and from the parking lot at your job. They all added up. And now many of them are gone.

For example, before my school transitioned to fully virtual instruction, I was on my feet almost all day, walking around to do things such as check on student work, pass out graded papers, and walk down the hallway to monitor student behavior and make sure they were going straight to class without loitering.

Now, I sit at my computer for almost the whole eight-hour workday because of non-stop virtual meetings with my classes. Our school meetings are even held virtually as well. And to be honest, with all the mental stress of learning new technologies and trying to implement them in the classroom, when I get home from work all I want to do is sit in front of my television with a snack and a good Netflix series.

Not a good equation for losing weight, is it?

I suppose I’m even a bit “lucky” to have to get up, get dressed, and go to work, because for the first few months when I taught entirely from home, I simply threw on a presentable shirt (my pajama bottoms stayed on) and headed to the computer which, unfortunately for me, was only about twenty steps away from my refrigerator.

And I know so many Americans are like me. People who were moderately active are becoming less so, not to mention the numerous active Americans who previously used the now-closed gyms to get in their required amount of exercise.

Time cites a research publication platform that found “Americans are exercising less than usual during the pandemic, and sitting and looking at screens more.” They also report that “people who were meeting exercise guidelines before the pandemic reported an average 32% reduction in physical activities once social-distancing measured went into effect.”

But moving less is only one of the factors for pandemic weight gain because the truth is that our emotions are equally to blame.

Stress Eating

No research is needed to validate the fact that stress brings on cravings for food, especially the high fat and sugary kind; after all, it’s no secret that emotional eating is a way people cope with feelings of depression and anxiety.

Mayo Clinic explains the many reasons for this contributor to weight gain. They explain that for many people emotional eating is “a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness” and that “major life events or, more commonly, the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and disrupt [one’s] weight-loss efforts.”

They also mention the fact that many also use food as a distraction from thinking about situations that cause anxiety and fear. However, the final devastating piece of the pandemic pounds problem is that the weight gain from emotional eating makes individuals more depressed, so the cycle of overindulging is perpetuated.

And COVID-related stress not only makes Americans eat more, but it also makes them eat poorly, as people often turn to high-fat, high-sugar foods for their “feel good” qualities.

Brigham Health Hub reports that “eating these kinds of foods activates dopamine, the ‘reward neurotransmitter’ in the brain, giving individuals a temporary sense of comfort and well-being,” a feeling that quickly goes away when they feel their clothes getting tighter and their pounds increasing.

Boredom

Remember the initial days of quarantine, when all you could do was sit inside your home, surf the net, and watch television? Remember feeling bored out of your mind, wanting to do something, anything, to relieve the dullness of lockdown?

Since then, we’ve ventured into the outside world a bit more, but that doesn’t change the fact that many things we used to do for excitement are no longer options, and often, eating seems the only thing to do for “entertainment.” For example, the events that used to keep our minds off food such as attending social gatherings, going to the movies, or engaging in fun activities such as concerts or sports events are gone. The end result? We make the refrigerator our best friend and the scale our worst enemy.

Changes you can make to lose the COVID pounds and regain control of your eating

Plan meals ahead of time

If you’re like me, you know you need to stay away from food delivery such as Door Dash and Grub Hub, but you also don’t want to go into a grocery store full of people, some of whom refuse to wear a mask, twice a week. So use a Sunday before the workweek begins or extra time gained from working remotely to plan healthy meals for the week. Once you’ve done this, make one trip to the grocery to get these items and commit to cooking the nutritious meals you planned out.

Psychology Today explains that cooking, especially trying out new recipes and getting other family members involved in the process, can lessen the chances of weight gain by combatting quarantine boredom and adding extra steps and movement into your day.

Spend more time in nature

Healthline states that when you are stressed, your body produces more cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” They note that while small increases in cortisol will not cause major effects, during extended periods of stress “cortisol levels may remain chronically elevated,” leading to unwanted weight gain.

Web MD offers a way to combat the increase of this hormone, stating that “even twenty minutes in nature reduces cortisol.” Their advice?

“When you feel like you want to go and just eat the entire fridge, go outside for 10 minutes, go on your deck, go in your front yard, whatever the case may be, but give yourself a diversion from the food.”

Exercise indoors and simply do small things to be more active

You may prefer to work out at a gym, but the truth is that there are many ways to get your exercise in at home.

If you want premium routines, Self outlines the thirteen best home workout programs, where subscribers get to view and participate in daily workouts, most costing only about twenty dollars or less a month.

However, for those of you like me who would rather not fork out the extra money, there are a multitude of quality indoor exercise routines that can be found on the web at large. For example, I strongly encourage you to check out an article in Very Well Fit , which offers an extensive list of sequenced routines and other at-home exercise resources, such as videos you can buy and other online resources.

Of course, for those of you who are more adventurous, you can up your “cool quotient” and get in needed movement by practicing the latest TikTok dance or hip-hop how-to on YouTube.

Get needed rest

The anxiety and fear that accompany COVID often go hand in hand with sleeplessness. An article in Web MD contains information from Dr. Michael Breus, head of the sleep division for Glendale Arizon’s Arrowhead Health. Breus states that “if you are sleep deprived, meaning you are not getting enough minutes of sleep or good quality sleep, your metabolism will not function properly.

He also describes the hormonal connection between lack of sleep and weight gain, explaining that two hormones, ghrelin and leptin are responsible. For example, he points out that “ghrelin is the ‘go’ hormone that tells you when to eat, and when you are sleep-deprived, you have more ghrelin” and that “leptin is the hormone that tells you to stop eating, and when you are sleep deprived, you have less leptin.”

And many of us also know first hand that sleepiness often causes a desire for foods that give us a sugar rush to keep going, and these foods don’t usually involve carrots and broccoli. They involve chocolate and cupcakes.

So the question is, how do we get better sleep when our mind is on emotional overload?

  • Create a bedroom that is sleep-inducing. Sleep.org recommends that
    the “bedroom temperature should be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep.” Other experts state that light “disrupts melatonin levels” and that individuals such purchase light blocking blinds or shades to create an environment for effective for inducing sleep.
  • Turn off electronics an hour before bedtime. An article in NBC News entitled “Sleepless in America: How Digital Devices Keep Us Up All Night” cites the words of Harvard sleep doctor Charles C. Czeisler, who explains the connection between the light technological devices gives off and insomnia. He says that “the blue light from our screen sends a signal to our brains that it’s still daylight, triggering a surge of energy and blocking the melatonin that makes us sleepy.”
  • Create a set sleep schedule. The CDC advises individuals that want better sleep to practice consistency. They state that individuals should have a set time for sleep and should not deviate from that scheduled time even on the weekends.
  • Limit the consumption of heavy foods, stimulants such as caffeine, and alcoholic drinks before bedtime. The Sleep Health Foundation warns that these things can either keep individuals from getting to sleep or disrupt sleep after one finally gets to bed.

The bottom line:

We can’t control the deadly virus that surrounds us, but we can control our actions within that environment. The key to keeping off the pounds or getting rid of the ones that have accumulated? Recognizing the triggers that compel us to eat and taking constructive steps to move our bodies and our minds towards the places they need to go. And I know it won’t be easy, but good things never are.

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Sanford, NC
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