Hours on Zoom calls, your spine fusing into the chair. Leftovers beckoning from the fridge for a 10:30 a.m. lunch. Your fitness tracker nagging you to move — just 9,819 more steps till your goal.
The pandemic has upended nearly every part of life over the past year, and for many it has taken a physical toll, a consequence of a more sedentary lifestyle, lost exercise routines, and, above all, extreme stress.
While plenty of people have relied on exercise to cope during a year filled with fear and loss, a recent survey found a startling level of weight gain, particularly among millennials and Gen Z.
The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” poll, conducted in late February, found that 42 percent of people reported they had become heavier than they intended during the previous year. Those people gained an average of 29 pounds, with 10 percent gaining more than 50.
Some of the most surprising figures came from the youngest demographics. Forty-eight percent of millennials, roughly ages 25 to 40, reported undesired weight gain, with an average of 41 pounds, while half of Gen Z put on pounds they didn’t want, with an average of 28.
“We’ve been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma, and isolation that Americans are experiencing,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., APA’s chief executive officer. “This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come.”
A separate study, which measured the weight of a quarter-million people as part of a heart study, was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found that during the lockdown last spring, the average person gained about 1½ pounds per month, ending June with an average increase of just over 7. But even after shelter-in-place orders lifted, many people continued to put on weight.
The pandemic also led to major impacts on sleep and mental health, with an especially heavy toll on essential workers, parents of young children, and communities of color, the “Stress in America” survey found. Two in three people said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started. Nearly one in four adults reported that they had drunk more alcohol to deal with the stress. Eighteen percent of people reported undesired weight loss, with an average of 26 pounds.
“These have been challenging times for everyone, and we have to assume stress is the primary culprit,” said Dr. Angela Fitch, associate director of the Mass General Weight Center. “But changes in weight are never about just one thing. That’s why it’s so complicated.”
Fitch said tackling weight gain can be daunting and she advises her patients to follow what she calls “the five p’s” — planned portions; plants and protein; power for physical activity; pillow; and pause (as in taking a break from eating, with at least 12 hours of fasting each day).
“These are all things that can affect your metabolic health,” she said. “And simple things like not sleeping enough can hurt your metabolic flexibility.”
More women reported weight gain than men, 45 percent to 39 percent, and women also experienced a higher average gain, 37 pounds compared to 22 for men, the survey found.
With the arrival of spring and the vaccines becoming more widely available, many people are now focused on getting back in shape.
“I get why people put on weight. It was easy to get depressed and not know which way to go,” said Jaime MacDonald, the co-owner of Community Fitness Cape Ann in Gloucester, who said she is seeing new faces at the gym. “But the first step in reversing that is to get up and move. You’ve got to start somewhere, even if it’s just getting off the couch and going for a walk. It doesn’t have to be much. Maybe it’s just a mile, but then you build, start adding. It’s about breaking bad habits and starting new ones.”
Julio Salado, who owns Fitness Foundry, an online training and weight loss coaching site, said that when clients come to him, the first thing he does is congratulate them for making the first step.
“There’s a mental health component to weight gain. It feels discouraging,” he said. “Depression can set in, so simply reaching out is empowering.”
Salado, who lives in Malden and is also an EMT, said he starts his clients with physical activity to get the endorphins flowing and relieve some stress before they start tackling diet.
“Abs are made in the kitchen, but for a change in diet to stick it needs to come behind physical activity. It’s the shadow,” he said. “Exercise will release endorphins that then motivate people to do more. That’s when I like to bring in the nutrition part.”
Susan Reverby is one of Salado’s clients and after packing on some unwanted pounds during the spring lockdown — “coping by baking,” she said — she buckled down on a diet and exercise plan and got results.
“I started seeing stuff about how people were getting sicker with COVID if they had obesity, and that was enough to scare me into action,” said Reverby, 75, a retired women’s studies professor at Wellesley College.
Eating better felt slightly easier because “I wasn’t traveling, I wasn’t going to restaurants, I wasn’t hanging out with the grandkids and eating snacks,” and she has been able to hit her goal of losing 20 pounds.
“My clothes fit better. I feel healthier. My only problem is I didn’t get any taller. I’m really annoyed by this,” she joked.