Some people may have gained more than 1.5 pounds on average per month during Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders in March and April 2020.
Forty-five out of 50 US state governments issued shelter-in-place orders from March 19 to April 6, 2020, to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A research team looked at nearly 7,500 weight measurements from 269 participants between February 1 and June 1, 2020, according to a research letter published Monday in JAMA Network Open. The participants were part of the Health eHeart Study, and their weight measurements came from Bluetooth-connected smart scales.
“On average, they gained about 0.6 pounds every 10 days or 1.8 pounds per month during shelter in place orders,” said cardiologist Dr. Gregory Marcus, one of the authors of the research and a professor of medicine at The University of California, San Francisco.
Why people might be gaining weight in the pandemic
This weight gain was irrespective of geographic location or comorbidities, the research found. The study authors said the implementation of shelter-in-place orders also corresponded with a decrease in daily step counts and an increase in self-reported overeating.
These two corresponding factors track with what experts think is behind an increase in weight gain during the pandemic. CNN health and nutrition contributor Lisa Drayer names comfort eating, specifically, as an issue during this stressful time.
During a lockdown, many have turned to high-calorie foods like sweets or pizza to relieve stress when there is little else to do or look forward to, and working from home allows the kitchen to be just within reach all day long.
Just as the pandemic has changed eating habits, it has had an impact on exercise habits, too, according to Dr. Caroline Apovian, co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
With the gyms that many relied on closed and people losing out on basic daily physical activity – like walking from the parking lot to their office – some people just aren’t getting the same level of exercise they did before the shutdown.
If you are reading this and are thinking of your own less-than-ideal habits you picked up over the past year, Drayer said it’s not time to guilt yourself.
“Definitely cut yourself a break,” Drayer said. “Eating is one of life’s pleasures, and the pandemic was so stressful, it’s understandable that we ate more of our favorite comfort foods – and more often and in larger quantities.”
However, it’s important to recognize unintended health consequences of shelter-in-place orders, the study authors said. They noted that their results show there is a need for strategies to mitigate weight gain as local governments consider their responses to Covid-19 and future pandemics.
If this weight gain is significant and permanent, there could be broader implications to society, according to Drayer.
“It means that there are other, unintended health consequences associated with a pandemic that can complicate an already risky situation,” she said.
This is because being obese or overweight may increase risk of severe illness from Covid-19, with obesity potentially tripling the risk of hospitalization due to Covid-19, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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How to view these results to address weight gain
This study did have its limitations. The study’s sample size was small and not diverse: Of the 269 participants, 77% were White.
“The fact that they’re (mostly) White just means that if you look at a racially diverse population, the results would be worse,” Apovian said. That’s “because we know that obesity is more prevalent in different races.”
The study’s reliance on Bluetooth scales and weight measurements does lead to a reduction in overall sample size, which is another limitation, the study authors said.
They also point out that characteristics of people who own these scales – who are already monitoring their weight and paying attention to their health – may limit the extent to which the study findings can be applied to other settings, but they say following the individuals over time to assess weight changes during shelter-in-place orders diminishes the threat to internal validity.
“It may be that what we observed is actual an underestimate of the magnitude of the weight gain that the majority of people have experienced — because if anything these people are especially interested in health and research,” Marcus said.
With all this in mind, Drayer said there are steps you can take to boost metabolism, correct bad habits and shed some pounds – even during a pandemic:
- Consume small, frequent meals. Eat three meals and three snacks each day, spaced three to four hours apart. Never skip meals; keep portable snacks handy for times when you’re too busy to stop and eat. Try to be consistent with meal and snack times.
- Include protein on your plate. Aim to include at least 3 ounces of protein per meal. For proper portioning, visualize the size of a computer mouse or a deck of cards.
- Gradually start lifting weights. Light weightlifting will help you to preserve muscle mass, boost metabolism and tone while you shed pounds.
- Start walking. A brisk walk for at least 30 minutes each day will jump-start your metabolism and help you burn extra calories.
- Find stress-relieving alternatives. Sometimes you may want to indulge your sweet tooth but often, a hot bath or a walk around the block can be equally stress-relieving.
Apovian hopes that, at the very least, Americans learn the importance of addressing obesity.
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“This brings up the point that your weight changes in a different environment. And it’s not your fault, it’s because (obesity is) a disease. And the disease of obesity is a dysfunction of the brain connections to the hormones that control your appetite and satiety,” Apovian said.
“(The study) shows that your disease can get worse if you have a lot of food around or you’re not doing too much or you’re staying at home. It speaks of the fact that this is not a matter of willpower.”