Personal Health Navigator

Why you shouldn’t fuss about weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Written by Paul Taylor

Question: I have been packing on the pounds since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m eating more and exercising less. I seem to be losing control and I feel horrible. How do I get back to my previous weight?

Answer: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Judging from comments on social media and anecdotal reports, a lot of other people are also struggling with weight gain during these difficult times.

Dr. Jeremy Gilbert, an endocrinologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, says it’s not really surprising that some individuals may have put on a few extra pounds in recent months.

Many of us are working from home and the kitchen is just a few steps away, which means there’s easy access to snacks throughout the day. High-calorie comfort foods are apparently in high demand and baking bread is now back in vogue.

“People appear to be eating more and stress is a big factor,” says Dr. Gilbert. “We look for comfort when mental health is challenged and chocolate is a lot more comforting than salad.”

To further complicate matters, healthier food options – such as fruits and vegetables – can be more costly and harder to keep fresh than processed goods with a long shelf life.

Alcohol consumption, another potential contributor to weight gain, is also on the rise, according to a poll commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

As a result, some people are putting more calories in their bodies – with less of an opportunity to burn them off, in part, because gyms and other exercise facilities have been closed.

So, how much should you worry about weight gain? The answer varies from person to person and largely depends upon an individual’s underlying medical condition and genetic predisposition.

In some cases, it might lead to an increase in insulin resistance, which could nudge a person from pre-diabetes to full-scale diabetes, says Dr. Gilbert, who specializes in the treatment of people with hormonal disorders such as diabetes.

Additional weight can also worsen certain conditions such as high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.

But for most people, the “pandemic pounds” are unlikely to lead to significant long-term health problems, says Dr. Sharon Domb, a staff family physician at Sunnybrook.  After all, what has been gained can also be shed. The extra weight doesn’t have to be permanent.

The challenge, of course, is developing a new fitness plan that takes into account the risks posed by the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19.

“The gyms may be closed for some time, but there’s no reason you can’t go for a walk, a run, or a bike ride,” she says. All those things are absolutely fine to do so long as you stick to the appropriate physical distancing recommendations and stay at least two metres away from other people.

There are also numerous online options for exercise and the only requirement is an internet connection, says Dr. Domb. “You can feel like you are part of a class even though you are in your own home.”

She notes that the disruptions in daily life caused by the pandemic might actually create more opportunities to do fitness workouts. “If you are no longer commuting to work, you can harness that extra time and make it useful,” she says. “We are into a new normal and we have to think differently than we did before.”

But Dr. Domb readily acknowledges, “change is hard.”

And, unfortunately, stress can drain away your energy so you feel less willing to try new things, says Dr. Jennifer Heisz, an associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Dr. Heisz is leading a study to gain a better understanding of how the pandemic is affecting mental health in the wider community.

The researchers hope to recruit 2,000 volunteers who will answer an online survey in order to pinpoint the barriers preventing people from getting exercise. That information will be used to create an evidence-based physical-activity toolkit for the public.

So far, about 1,000 people have already completed the survey.  The preliminary findings suggest that “a lack motivation” is one of the key barriers to physical activity, says Dr. Heisz.  And the pandemic exacerbates the lack of drive.

“All the uncertainty elevates your mental stress and fatigue, making it difficult to exercise,” she says.

One way to overcome this problem is to create an exercise schedule.

“It sounds really simple, but if you put exercise into your calendar – just like any other meeting – you have a greater chance of adhering to it,” she explains.

“Having a consistent routine is a good way to cope with stress. It makes you feel normal.  At least part of your daily cycle is predictable.”

Dr. Heisz also suggests that you should initially keep your new workout program at a moderate level. Exercise requires energy, can be unpleasant and is technically a stressor on the body.  “Start gradually and make it easy so you can push through the unpleasantness until it feels good.”

Eventually the effort should pay off. Research shows that about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, three times a week can boost mood and reduce psychological distress, says Dr. Heisz. Exercise also contributes to overall physical health.

Dr. Heisz hopes to have the physical-activity toolkit – with detailed recommendations – available by July. “We are expediting this because we can see there is a real need for it.”

But, at the same time, she says people shouldn’t feel badly if they have gained a few pounds.

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by other health experts.

“I think it’s important to respect the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be expecting ourselves to eat the same way we did pre-COVID, and that our healthy-living behaviours should realistically suffer to some degree as a consequence of the pandemic,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa.

He is concerned that too much emphasis on weight gain will add to shame, guilt and stigma.

As Dr. Heisz puts it: “We need kindness and compassionate messages right now. No one needs another stressor put on their plate.”

About the author

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Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor, Sunnybrook’s Patient Navigation Advisor, provides advice and answers questions from patients and their families, relying heavily on medical and health experts. Email your questions to AskPaul@sunnybrook.ca
and follow me on Twitter @epaultaylor