The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people's health, both mentally and physically. One of the most notable impacts of that is weight gain, which leads to many health problems in both the present and the future. "We've seen a huge spike in pre-diabetes diagnoses since the beginning of COVID," notes Dr. Manuela Hamaoui, a member of Summit Health's internal medicine team.
There are multiple contributors to this rise in obesity, she explains, but with some lifestyle changes, there are ways to combat it.
Why has weight gain surged?
"A lot of people's lifestyles took a hit," says Dr. Hamaoui. Three factors in particular have contributed to this.
1. Less daily activity
"Being confined to their homes has made people very sedentary," says Dr. Hamaoui. "We used to walk to a meeting or take a coffee break. Now people are stuck in a chair for eight hours or more."
2. Depression and anxiety
Stress over household economics due to job loss, working full-time jobs while teaching children, and lack of normal social interaction all contribute to mental health problems. "There's a mental exhaustion to it all," says Dr. Hamaoui, “which often leads to eating unhealthy food and lack of motivation to exercise."
3. Gym closures
Going to the gym is part of many people's regular routines, so when workout facilities closed, these habits fell off. While Dr. Hamaoui saw many patients purchasing at-home gym equipment in the beginning, many started using it less as the pandemic wore on. "People were tired and it was hard to get motivated," she says.
How to lose weight (and keep it off)
Fortunately, weight gain doesn’t have to be permanent. You can take actions now to prevent it from causing health issues in the future.
While cardio activities like running and biking are important, don’t limit your exercise to just that. "A lot of people think cardio is the best way to lose weight," Dr. Hamaoui says. "But building muscle mass is how you increase your metabolism. I encourage patients to focus on gaining muscle."
Get plenty of sleep
"Sleep has a big impact on weight," Dr. Hamaoui says. "Lack of sleep raises cortisol levels, which prompts the body to store more fat." Try to keep your bedtime and waking time as consistent as possible, so that your body gets into a routine of good sleep.
Consider seeing a nutritionist
"A nutritionist can help individuals find the right plan for them," she explains. "People read an article about this diet or that diet, but it's rare that it works perfectly. The idea is to find something sustainable—not a crash diet."
Make healthy choices
Choose healthy snacks such as vegetables and fruit, and minimize alcohol if you are trying to lose weight as it adds a lot of unnecessary calories.
If you suffer from obesity, consider medication or a surgical procedure
While body mass index (BMI) is not a perfect metric, Dr. Hamaoui notes, it does serve as a general guide in determining obesity. For those who suffer from morbid obesity (a BMI over 40), surgery is an option. Less drastic measures are available to those with a BMI over 27 (considered obese). "At this level, I am able to prescribe pharmacotherapies," she says.
Get back to your doctor
Many people avoided going to the doctor during this past year because of stay-at-home orders and fear of COVID-19 exposure. "I'm finding patients haven't seen a doctor in a year or two," Dr. Hamaoui says. But with virtual appointments, even people who aren't comfortable with in-person appointments have options. Consistently monitoring your health, she says, is one of the best ways to prevent future problems.