Understanding and losing pandemic weight gain happens one small step at a time


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — According to a March survey by the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” pandemic survey, 61% of people surveyed said they experience unwanted weight gain.

The poll consisted of 3,013 US adults, and the average amount of weight gained was 29 pounds. 45% of women reported gaining weight — compared that to 39% of men — but women gained an average of 22 pounds, whereas men gained an average of 37 pounds.

Millennials also bore the brunt of the increase, according to this survey. 48% of millennials reported gaining weight, and had the highest average gain at 41 pounds.

Dr. Holly Russell, with URMC’s Department of Family Medicine — and the Medical Director for Clinical and Community Programs at the Center for Community Health and Prevention — says she is seeing this her practice.

Family medicine doctors see patients of all ages, and while she hasn’t seen a particular weight increase in specific ages groups, she is noticing a handful of common reasons as to why people are gaining weight.

One of the biggest factors, as alluded to in the name of the APA’s study, is stress.

“I think is just living in such a stressful time, right,” she said. “None of us have ever lived through such a difficult time where there’s both physical danger from the actual virus and getting sick, but also a lot of emotional stress.”

Compounded to that, she says the lack of support systems that come from being in a pandemic — like seeing friends and family, social activities, working or learning at home — can make dealing with that stress even harder.

Dr. Russell says that there is a link between stress and weight gain.

“The science isn’t quite there to say exactly why we know definitely that there’s an association and is probably multifactorial,” she says.

Those factors:

  • Genetics
  • Your environment that you live in
  • As well as your personal lifestyle choices

“And so what we think is that also all three of those things are affected when you’re stressed,” she continued. “If you’re stressed in your emotional eating, right? So that’s a part of it for sure is the lifestyle choices. When people are stressed, they tend to reach for comfort foods, right? And those tend to be more energy, dense, less healthy choices on average.”

Add to that, sleep cycles are so also affected by stress, and being in a pandemic has affected people’s access to gyms.

Some personal lifestyle choices are also likely being affected by working from home, according to Dr. Russell. Particularly snacking, she says, recalling the leftover Easter goodies that are often snacked on in her home. Not having the same time structure when people don’t go to work can lead to more snacking.

She also adds that some changes occur in the sympathetic nervous system when our bodies are in flight or fight mode, like when in the middle of a pandemic.

Drinking, too, is on the rise.

“We’re seeing higher rates of liver failure amongst young people, in levels that we’re not used to seeing,” she says. “And so I do think a lot of that is related to the emotional and mental health issues and the overlap between that and sort of chemical coping for some of that stress.”

She says that our entire societal and healthcare system was “set up to fail” in the wake of a pandemic, given our country’s attitude and lack of availabiltiy and resources for mental heakth and counseling.

But some good news, she has some tips to try to beat back the unwanted weight gain.

“I would start with is to be gentle to yourself,” she says, as if identifying the mind of News 8’s digital content reporter through a Zoom call. “I think we’re living in this time of unprecedented stress, and so much about this year has been survival. I heard recently to practice non-violence to ourselves. And so I try to share that kind of philosophy with my patients.”

She also says to start small. If you’re not sleeping right, snacking, drinking a little too much, and not getting enough exercise, don’t do it all at once.

“For example, with physical activity, could you walk for 10 minutes, three times a week?” she said. “I’m talking really small goals, because honestly it gets so overwhelming, that then people don’t do it, and that’s the opposite of what I want to happen. I want you to set a small goal, be successful with it and then build from that.”

She also proffers a gentle reminder that people can reach out to the Center for Community Health.

“We have a team of dietitians, lifestyle counselors, myself, and a nurse practitioner. We’re also always there and very happy to help patients as they make these goals,” she said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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