Quarantine 15: COVID-19 stress can lead to weight gain

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Editor’s note: Reporter Nick Gledhill’s experience with weight gain during the pandemic became the catalyst to acknowledge an issue he believed others were experiencing, so he opted to write a first-person account of his own experience in addition to talking with others.

In the first three months of 2020, I applied to several internships in Washington D.C., was doing well in my church calling, and had been faithful in my resolution to go to the gym once a week. This was going to be my year.

Then March happened. My internship was canceled, church buildings were closed, and my gym was shut down.

Unfortunately, my disappointment and subsequent stress of the global pandemic led me to self-medicate by binge-watching television and ordering Door Dash more times than is healthy or decent. I’m not saying my summer was a complete bust, but it certainly didn’t meet my expectations.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I returned to our regular, in-person church meetings. We were excited to see our fellow ward members again and spent at least a little time outside of our apartment. We spent Sunday morning getting ready, a ritual we hadn’t performed in six months. This was going to be a special day for our ward family, so I wanted to dress to impress. I chose to wear my powder-blue suit, the same one I wore on my wedding day. Light, sleek, and trim, this suit would make me feel like a million bucks. However, when I first tried to get the rail-thin pants around my bulging paunch of a belly, I felt more like a million pounds. I couldn’t even zip up the pants.

“Oh my gosh,” I said to my wife. “I’m a whale.” My wife and I howled with laughter as we observed the difference in my size between these photos: One taken during our formal wedding pictures, the other taken that Sunday morning.

Sound familiar? Others on the BYU campus have noted similar body changes during periods of quarantine or isolation as a result of COVID-19. With physical and recreational activity virtually nonexistent and looming anxiety induced by the global pandemic, lifestyle change and stress-related weight gain is becoming more commonplace.

‘Quarantine 15’ on campus

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, public relations student Peyton Payne exercised five times a week, participated in extracurricular activities and went out with friends regularly to keep herself active. When the pandemic began, she had to refrain from all those activities.

“It affected me mentally a lot more than physically,” Payne said. “I felt more lonely, and I felt the need to be busy and do stuff, but I couldn’t.”

Payne hasn’t noted any weight gain, as she doesn’t keep track. She has, however, mentioned that her COVID-19 lifestyle has made her feel more like “a lump.”

Payne said the abrupt stop in physical activity made her feel more mentally lazy though she was doing more work inside. This sudden change was particularly difficult for her given her past habits.

“I was on the computer all the time,” Payne said. “It was almost like work never ended. I suffered from anorexia for three years, and had to develop good exercise and eating habits to get myself out.”

Sophomore Josh Duricka has faced similar mental anxiety to Payne. A sports enthusiast, he feels limited in his options for playing and exercising.

“I can’t find any open soccer fields or basketball courts,” Duricka said. “Playing sports is one of those things that affects my mental health and helps me get my energy out.”

While Duricka hasn’t noticed any weight gain, his mental state has been adversely affected since the pandemic.

“I’m not as focused and I’m not as happy or outgoing because I’m spending more time indoors,” Duricka said.

Public relations student Elaine Pfeil said the combination of her rheumatoid arthritis and COVID isolation has also taken a toll on her physical and mental health.

“I have gained weight without realizing it,” Pfeil said. “I weigh more than I ever have now, and my mental health has declined as well.”

Risks of weight gain and COVID-19

Stress combined with a sedentary lifestyle has been shown to contribute to weight gain. A 2015 study showed that the human metabolism slows under stress. This phenomenon can lead to weight gain.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that adults with excess weight are at even greater risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the CDC advised steps individuals can take to decrease their chances of contracting the virus, including:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Being active
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Coping successfully with stress
Data from the CDC shows the risks of weight gain and obesity during COVID-19. (Nick Gledhill)

Solutions and benefits

Professors on campus are echoing the same risks and recommending similar guidelines given by the CDC as well as offering additional advice that can help students stay safe while being healthy.

Mandy Christensen, a department of exercise sciences faculty member, said chronic health problems are a risk factor for those exposed to COVID-19.

“Problems like heart disease are a major risk factor in COVID-19,” Christensen said. “That could contribute to a poorer outcome if someone does contract the disease.”

Christensen recommends that people find an accessible and fun exercise plan to keep their bodies healthy.

“If you enjoy doing it, you’ll keep doing it,” Christensen said. “You don’t have to be that creative, you can just use Google to find blogs and websites to do activities you can do in your own home. Physical activity can be as easy as walking around the neighborhood after dinner.”

Exercise sciences graduate student Abi Dorff has studied the risks that can come from an inactive lifestyle and has commented that the goal should be less focused on weight loss and more on general health.

“While I think weight loss is possible during the pandemic, people should be focused on their bodies being healthy,” Dorff said. “Eat healthy foods, don’t over-consume, and exercise.”

Dorff, like Christensen, said the best way to gain a healthier lifestyle during the pandemic is to find simple things to get you in motion.

“Exercise involving bodyweight is great,” Dorff said. “Push-ups, sit-ups, burpees, anything with your personal weight is good. The littlest amount can make a big difference.”

Dorff said she likes to find exercises by searching on Pinterest. “If I want to work on a specific muscle, I search Pinterest,” Dorff said. “I just want to encourage people to find an exercise they enjoy.”

Gaining hope, losing weight

While the data can be frightening and the weight gain can be disheartening, I’ve found that moping hasn’t done much for me, so why do it? I followed Christensen’s advice and searched for at-home workouts I might find appealing.

I found a bunch of fun ideas, but my favorite by far is the “Jedi workout” on Darebee.com.

My favorite workout. (darebee.com)

Putting my physical and mental health first has helped me achieve some semblance of normal during this crazy time. Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has been discouraging, but I haven’t been discouraged. Regular and safe exercise has helped me lose weight and pay more attention during my online classes. I’m thinking the “Quarantine 15” can be beaten, and 2020 can still be my year.

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