Pandemic pounds

(Courtesy of Mahdis Habibinia)

Since the first state of emergency on March 17, 2020, gyms and fitness centres have been closed on-and-off for months at a time throughout Canada, which have likely started to take a toll on those who once relied on such places to stay fit.

Weight gain tends to have a stigma attached to it, which can lead to widespread negative stereotypes that overweight people are lazy, unmotivated and/or lack self-control. According to Obesity Canada, due to this perception, overweight individuals are often treated unfairly in access to employment, healthcare, and education.

Dr. Rebecca Bassett-Gunter, an associate professor in York’s department of kinesiology, says that for many people, “a change in body weight can impact their body image. Negative body image can impact people’s overall self-esteem and has even been found to lead to other mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.” 

Dr. Bassett-Gunter explains that due to there being a lot less social gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we will engage in less social comparison regarding our physiques, hence, we may experience less social physique anxiety and less negative body image.”

However, she also notes that social media still functions as a platform for individuals to engage in social comparison. However, the pandemic may have also lessened the perceived pressure on individuals to have or uphold a certain physique.

“The unique circumstances of the pandemic may present some unique considerations for understanding how weight gain can impact our psychological well-being. For some people, there may be a sense of acceptance or understanding, and for others, the unique circumstances may allow for some grace and kindness toward themselves,” says Dr. Bassett-Gunter.

However, there are a few surveys showing weight gain during the pandemic to be common. A survey published in November 2020 conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies revealed that nearly one-third of the 1,516 Canadian respondents claimed to have put on weight since March of 2020.

Another study, conducted by athletics shoe guide website RunRepeat, surveyed 19,903 people in 140 countries of which “35.82% reported that they had gained weight during the pandemic” and “71.25% of those that reported gaining weight had gained five or more pounds.” 

About 30 per cent of Canadians surveyed reported weight gain, however Canada was also among the top two countries where more respondents reported having lost weight than having gained. 

While it’s common to think that weight gain can be attributed solely to overeating, several experts agree that such may not be the only factor involved in weight gain. There is also the body’s metabolism to consider. Metabolism is the rate that the body burns calories and some experts believe that the speed of a given metabolism plays an integral role in one’s weight. 

According to Harvard Medical School, people who inherit a fast metabolism will be able to eat more than others while maintaining a healthy weight. While experts agree that the speed of one’s metabolism is due to genetics and therefore largely outside of an individual’s control, the question of whether the metabolism can be changed is under debate. 

According to Dr. Emilie Roudier, an assistant professor in York’s kinesiology department, “While metabolism likely plays a role in children’s weight gain due to the unbalance between energy expenditure and energy uptake, there are other determinants of healthy weight in childhood. The environmental and social context are key too. It is also important to note that enjoyment and social interactions are influencing children’s level of physical activity.” 

Echoing Dr. Roudier’s insights, Asal Moghaddaszadeh, a PhD student specializing in children’s health, adds: “There’s a lot of research that suggests regardless of high or low metabolism, weight gain just boils down to energy balance, that is, if you consume more calories than you expend then it will lead to weight gain.” 

Moghaddaszadeh goes on to explain that “healthy active living is a lifestyle, it does not happen overnight and it takes time to become a habit.”

Despite this uncertainty, some still believe that factors such as medication, stress, and hormone imbalances lower the metabolism and cause weight gain. 

Members of the York community agree that along with the closure of public fitness centres, there are several other factors and challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that may lead to weight gain in both adults and children. 

Dr. Rebecca Bassett-Gunter notes that changed behaviours due to the COVID-19 pandemic include “more screen-time, less physical activity, and changed dietary behaviours, and for some people, this has resulted in weight gain.” 

“An extended stay at home can definitely impact a child’s ability to maintain a healthy weight due to the added barriers of being physically active,” says Moghaddaszadeh.  

Third-year health studies student Philip So says, “The closure of fitness centres and gyms has definitely affected me negatively. These were places where I could exercise if I was feeling unmotivated or needed to get away from everything for a little bit.”

The current method used to measure an adult’s healthy weight is the body mass index (BMI) scale, which is determined by dividing an individual’s weight in kilograms by their height squared in metres. The number computed will lie within one of five ranges: below 18.5 indicating that one is underweight, 18.5 to 24.9 indicating a healthy weight, 25 to 29.9 indicating that one is overweight, or 30 to 39.9 indicating obesity range.

It is important to note that while the BMI scale allows one to better understand what their weight means, it is also important to recognize that the BMI itself is not measuring “health” or a physiological state indicating that an individual either has or does not have a particular disease. It is simply a measure of a person’s size. 

Many people have a high or low BMI and are healthy while there are many people with a ‘normal’ BMI who are unhealthy. In fact, a person with a normal BMI who smokes and has a strong family history of heart disease may have a higher risk of early cardiovascular death than someone who has a high BMI, but is a physically fit non-smoker.

According to Harvard’s Dr. Robert Shmerling, studies have found that despite the fact that the risk of certain diseases increases with rising BMI, people actually tend to live longer, on average, if their BMI is a bit on the higher side. The results of this study are commonly referred to as the “obesity paradox.”

According to Obesity Canada, the 2015 Canadian Health Measures Survey revealed that one in three adults in Canada has obesity and may require medical support to manage their disease. Since 2015, the obesity rate in Canada has on average been increasing among all age groups and genders. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic only came into effect in Canada in March 2020, these trends ask the question of whether the pandemic is truly what is causing weight gain among Canadians, or if Canadians need to take more steps in general to improve their overall health to avoid developing obesity. 

The good news is, regardless of why Canadians claim to have gained weight since the start of the pandemic, there is lots of hope for reversing the problem.

To encourage those who have gained weight during this time, So advises to “create a routine” as “oftentimes overeating can be caused by stress and worry, which is common during these trying times.” So continues that he has personally “found it helpful to set aside time to exercise at home, delve into a hobby, or set goals as these help me destress and gather himself.” 

For children struggling with weight gain, Moghaddaszadeh recommends “focusing on some of the major factors that contribute to weight gain that are within our control, such as physical activity and nutrition.”

Moghaddaszadeh advises controlling both physical activity and nutrition, “to increase activities of daily living (taking the stairs, walking to school, etc.) along with meeting Canada’s physical activity guidelines for children and to decrease processed foods and excess sugar and make homemade meals with whole foods from a variety of colours.”

Dr. Roudier suggests that we “forget about exercising or going to the gym, but instead to play or dance, as adults can rediscover their childlike minds.” Dr. Roudier believes that her suggestion may also work for many children because “most kids love dancing and it could be quite fun to do as a family, and a lot of energy expenditure will happen too if you pick the right music. Plus this will help keep a positive mind!”

Even with the COVID-19 vaccine underway, experts warn that the pandemic will not end overnight. As new variants spread at different rates, and many unknowns about the effectiveness of the current vaccines against such, it will be very difficult to predict when Candians will be able to get back to the life we knew before 2020. 

As obesity puts individuals at an increased rate of several health issues including fatal health complications such as coronary heart disease and stroke, it is vital that Canadians adjust to new ways of maintaining healthy weights without relying on gyms and fitness centres, as there is no telling when they will all be open freely and consistently.

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By Brittania Fusca

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