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March 22, 2021

Americans have piled on the pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic

To lose the weight, health experts advise maintaining a daily routine — even when working from home

Wellness Weight Gain
Weight gain during pandemic i yunmai/Unsplash

Americans gained two pounds per month during the COVID-19 lockdowns last spring, a new study suggests.

As a second summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, many Americans are worrying about slimming down after so many months spent mostly at home. Many people haven't had much to do except binge their favorite foods, television shows and movies. 

But how much weight have Americans really gained since the first stay-at-home orders were issued a year ago? 

Surveys have affirmed what most people assumed — that the "quarantine 15," just like the "freshman 15," is a real concern. But a new study attempted to better quantify the weight Americans have gained by using measurements from Bluetooth-connected smart scales

The researches found adults gained nearly two pounds per month during a four-month stretch that corresponded with the most stringent lockdowns last year. That could easily add up to 20 pounds in a year, researcher Dr. Gregory M. Marcus, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times.

"We know that weight gain is a public health problem in the U.S. already, so anything making it worse is definitely concerning, and shelter-in-place orders are so ubiquitous that the sheer number of people affected by this makes it extremely relevant," Marcus said.

All of the study participants were tracking their weight as part of a cardiology study that asked them to weigh themselves regularly using Bluetooth-connected smart scales. Each participant reported about 28 weight measurements between February 1, 2020 and June 1, 2020.

The researchers acknowledged that the study is small — it only included 269 people — and therefore cannot make any broad assumptions. However, it still hints at a growing problem supported by other research.

A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 42% of its 3,013 adult respondents said they experienced undesired weight gain amid the pandemic. Of that group, the average person gained 29 pounds. 

But that amount was even higher among millennials. Nearly 50% of millennials surveyed said they had gained weight. And their average weight gain? An astounding 41 pounds, the highest amount of any generation.

Obesity is one of the biggest health threats for Americans and is considered a risk factor for more severe COVID-19 disease and hospitalization.

Almost 42% of American adults are considered obese and another 32% are overweight. Adults are considered obese if their body mass index is 30 or higher. In many states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, people who are obese are being prioritized for coronavirus vaccines.

Dr. Angela Fitch, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, called the weight gains reported by millennials "striking."

"As an obesity medicine specialist ... I find it to be alarming, for sure," Fitch told CBS News. "But you can see where it could be the case. I mean, it's been a very challenging year, on multiple levels." 

COVID-19 has disrupted life in many ways. Many people have grieved the loss of loved ones or faced financial worries, including the cost of healthy food. Others have had limited time to exercise. All of that could be contributing to Americans' weight struggles. 

How to lose weight gained amid the pandemic

So how can people lose weight while they are still spending much of their time at home? Here are some recommendations from the experts:

Eat more produce and less processed foods and avoid sugary beverages that contain excess calories. The key is to cut 500 calories every day through exercise and reduced calorie intake, nutrition experts say.

Maintaining a daily routine, planning meals and dressing up for work — even when working from home — can help people stay on track with their fitness goals, John Morton and Artur Viana, of Yale Medicine, recommend. Staying in sweatpants all day may hide any gradual weight gain.

Also, don't skip breakfast. Studies have shown that people who eat breakfast every day have lower body mass indexes than people who skip it.

People can use the time at home to try new, healthy recipes and to improve their sleep regimens so they are getting more sleep each night. Obesity has been linked to lower amounts of sleep.

And of course exercise, whether inside the house or outside as warmer weather returns. Adults need at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, according to the World Health Organization.

Trying to limit time outdoors? Create a makeshift gym or start family yoga sessions. If space is limited, use household cleaning and other tasks to increase daily steps.

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