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Sheltering in place may have been an effective way to reduce the spread of Covid-19, but pandemic weight gain has often been an unintended consequence. Chances are, extra pounds accumulated slowly, but they add up.
One study at the University of California San Francisco tracked 269 people in 37 different states using bathroom scales connected by Bluetooth for an objective measure of weight changes. It found that between February and June of 2020, the average weight gain among study participants was about 1.5 pounds per month. Although that may not sound like much, it accumulates over time: 6 pounds in 4 months, for example, and more over a longer period.
A survey of 3,000 Americans by the American Psychological Association found that in the year following the first lockdown in March 2020, more than two in five people gained weight. Fifteen pounds was a typical gain—the so-called “pandemic 15”—but some people gained more.
Pandemic Weight-Gain Drivers
To get an objective view of the drivers of pandemic weight gain, researchers at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix surveyed 1,200 people via Facebook during a peak lockdown period in 2020. They concluded that these were major weight-gain contributors:
- Eating in response to stress, rather than hunger.
- Being prompted to eat by the appearance and smell of food.
- Snacking after dinner.
- Being less physically active.
- Lack of sleep.
A Realistic Fix for Pandemic Weight Gain
Our lives aren’t going to magically snap back to the proverbial “normal.” So it’s up to each one of us to realistically cultivate habits that put us on a healthier, slimmer path. And there are tools we can use.
Reversal Step 1: Reduce Stress and Boost Your Mood
To reduce stress, boost your mood, and get some exercise at the same time, go for a walk in nature as often as possible. Exposure to nature and its sounds has been proven to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as blood pressure, heart rate, and pain.
Gardening is another option. One study found that just 30 minutes of outdoor gardening relieved stress and restored a positive mood. And many other studies have found that gardening relieves depression and anxiety, increases life satisfaction, and is associated with lower body weight.
If you can’t access a nature area or garden only occasionally, get some other type of exercise daily. Take a walk along streets with the least amount of traffic and the most trees in your neighborhood; dance in your living room; do an online exercise routine or some yoga poses; or stretch. The main thing is to move.
Moderate exercise can enhance levels of tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, and improve mood. And that, in turn, can help you take charge of your eating habits.
Reversal Step 2: Monitor Your Physical Activity
Tracking what you do is a proven weight-loss strategy. To take a gradual approach, start by tracking your physical activity. It’s easy to do with apps that usually come preinstalled on a smartphone: the Health app on an iPhone or the Fit app on an Android phone. If the phone is on you when you walk or run, the app will automatically track the movement.
Reversal Step 3: Plan Your Food
Although exercise is essential, what you eat is going to make the biggest difference in reversing pandemic weight gain. For healthy weight loss, you need to eat nutritious whole foods—especially plenty of fresh vegetables—rather than junk food or high-calorie dishes that aren’t rich in nutrients.
You can take a gradual approach by swapping out non-nutritious, high-calorie choices with healthier ones. For example, have poached or grilled salmon and a variety of non-starchy vegetables for dinner instead of pizza or a burger and fries.
For faster weight loss, consider following a proven plan. Studies that compared diets have found that a very-low-carb keto diet is especially effective for short term weight loss. And a keto diet may help to suppress appetite.
Keeping food out of your line of sight and smell when you aren’t having a meal can help to overcome too much snacking. And it’s more realistic to avoid eating junk food when you keep it out of your home.
Reversal Step 4: Track What You Eat
A study at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research found that keeping a food diary can double weight loss. Recording your food each time you eat, rather than trying to remember it at the end of the day, is the most effective approach. It doesn’t matter whether you use pen and paper or an app such as My Fitness Pal.
Reversal Step 5: Get Good Sleep
Insufficient sleep disrupts stress and hunger hormones. According to a review of studies of more than 604,000 people, sleeping less than 5 hours per night increases the odds of obesity by 55 percent.
Allowing yourself enough time to sleep 7–8 hours in a calm, cool, quiet bedroom is important, but exercise can also help. Studies show that moderate (not intense) exercise can improve sleep quality, leaving you more rested.
Weight loss takes some patience and perseverance. Making gradual changes, tracking your progress, and being consistent will put you on the path to success.