For the study, which was published in the journal Obesity, online surveys were distributed in April 2020 to more than 7,700 normal weight, overweight and obese adults across the globe to glean information about how the pandemic affected their dietary habits, physical activity and mental health.
The researchers found that healthy eating actually increased during the pandemic “due to less eating out and increased cooking.” But people also reported snacking more, as well as consuming more sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.
They also started moving their bodies less often during the pandemic. The amount of time people spent being physically active (as well as the intensity of their workouts) went down, while sedentary behaviors went up. More than 27 percent of the study’s total participants reported gaining weight during the pandemic. On the flip side, more than 17 percent of people reported losing weight.
It’s worth noting that participants who reported gaining weight made few changes to their eating habits, but had the largest declines in physical activity. By comparison, those who lost weight not only improved their healthy eating habits, but they were also more physically active and avoided slipping into more sedentary behaviors.
Not surprisingly, stress levels shot up during the pandemic, with reported anxiety scores nearly doubling because of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders. In addition, 20 percent reported that their anxiety was severe enough to affect their daily routines. The study authors also noted that the “magnitude of increase” in anxiety was “significantly greater in people with obesity.”
According to the study, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to “significant health effects, well beyond the virus itself.” The study authors stated that the “fear of contracting the virus” has “significantly impacted lifestyle behaviors alongside declines in mental health.”
The study also highlighted how certain unhealthy and healthy behaviors can go together. People who reported a shift toward unhealthy eating habits were also likely to report being more sedentary, less physically active and having trouble falling asleep. By comparison, people with healthy eating habits reported an increase in their physical activity levels.
“The study findings mirror what I’ve heard from many psychotherapy clients: somewhat better nutrition and somewhat worse exercise during the pandemic,” Jennifer Carter, PhD, a sports psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life (she did not participate in the research).
The stress of the pandemic
One of the study’s authors, Emily Flanagan, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, tells Yahoo Life that one of the reasons physical activity went down for some is that “many of the gyms, health clubs and other facilities where people usually exercised were closed,” and “exercise equipment was in short supply.”
Flanagan adds: “There were also drastic changes to people’s work schedules, their children’s school or daycare, which added hours to many parents’ days. Factor in the increase in anxiety and getting less sleep, and it’s not hard to see why people were less motivated to stick to their exercise routines. If you’re tired and grouchy when you get up in the morning, you’re probably not going to exercise as much. If you’re sleep-deprived, you’re not going to make wise food choices.”
Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, who was not associated with the study, agrees, telling Yahoo Life that with people staying at home and especially for parents who now find themselves managing their kids’ schooling as well, “their responsibilities have increased.” Shah adds: “It’s stressful. You can’t find spare time to do a lot of things. The schedule has become too congested and too busy.”
All of this creates anxiety, which Carter explains is challenging for most people to deal with. “Sometimes we use ineffective coping strategies that initially bring temporary relief but in the long term bring more distress,” says Carter. “Unbalanced nutrition and unbalanced exercise are two of these ineffective strategies.”
As far as why people who are obese are having a particularly hard time with anxiety during the pandemic, Carter believes that may be due to fear of the virus. “People who are obese constantly hear about obesity as a risk factor for negative outcomes with COVID-19,” says Carter. “People with obesity are likely very frightened. Unfortunately, we sometimes try to cope with such fear by eating comfort foods. Or, we may be so bombarded by fear/anxiety that we don’t feel the mental energy to get up and exercise, especially when gyms, pools and other facilities are closed.”
Flanagan agrees that fear is likely a factor, saying the fact that people with obesity are at a “much higher risk” for severe illness and hospitalization “undoubtedly contributed to the higher anxiety levels.”
Carter also points out that the lack of social support due to physical distancing is taking a toll on people’s mental health. “We are social beings, wired to seek connection, and the isolation can feel devastating,” Carter says.
Shah backs this up, saying that “people are getting lonely.” He notes there’s less physical contact during the pandemic, such as hugs from close friends and family members, which affects both mental and physical health. “Touching releases the hormone called oxytocin, which helps relieve stress and improves immunity,” Shah says.
He adds that these pandemic-related mental health effects will be long-lasting. “This is an ongoing disaster that’s lasted nearly a year — you can imagine that the mental health impact will be felt for over a decade.”
What does this mean for the winter months?
With winter ahead — which spells colder weather and less daylight hours that make it more challenging to spend time outdoors, as well as looming lockdowns in some areas across the U.S. — some experts are concerned that this will only serve to further worsen people’s mental and physical health.
“We are worried about this,” says Flanagan. “The holidays are going to be hard. We know that extended periods of isolation aren’t good for people’s mental health. We’re recommending that physicians increase the number of mental health screenings during and after the pandemic.”
Flanagan also recommends that doctors “remain connected to their patients through virtual visits, which can help assuage patients’ concerns about the safety of in-person visits. Both of these steps can help prevent irreversible health effects from the pandemic.”
How to stay healthy during the pandemic
To help people maintain healthy habits while stuck indoors either because of cold weather or stay-at-home orders, Flanagan notes that, as many people have discovered during the pandemic, “there are any number of online videos that show you how to exercise without equipment and learn to cook healthy meals.”
For mental health, Flanagan points out that the use of telehealth consultations has “drastically increased” throughout the pandemic, allowing people to conveniently access help at home. “Telehealth sessions with your healthcare provider are also a strategy to treat and manage mental health with less time commitment — i.e. no travel — and limit virus exposure.”
Shah recommends spending time with close friends and family outdoors while physically distancing and wearing masks. But if you’re not able to safely see loved ones in person, he says that video calls are “better than nothing,” adding: “People need to socialize.”
While Carter acknowledges there are “challenges” ahead, she says that there is also “hope related to vaccines, better treatment, and the start of a new year.” She adds: “We are paying too much attention to what could go wrong without also asking what could go right.”
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