With three in five Canadians saying they experienced undesired weight changes during the pandemic, it can be easy to shame ourselves for not eating the way we think we should have or exercising as much as is recommended.
“It was definitely a challenge to keep up with fitness during the pandemic when gyms were closed, motivation and mental health felt like it was lower than ever, and fast food and Netflix were easy sources of comfort,” says second-year computer science student Robert Grant.
While those are undeniably important parts of maintaining a healthy weight, they are definitely not the only factors that come into play. Our natural metabolism plays a heavy role in how quickly we lose or gain weight.
Metabolism is defined as being a general term used to describe all the chemical reactions involved in maintaining the living state of the cells and the organism.
Metabolism is further divided into two categories: catabolism, where molecules are broken down to obtain energy; and anabolism, the process where the body uses the energy produced by catabolism to synthesize complex molecules.
To put it simply, metabolism is responsible for converting the food you eat into the energy you use throughout the day.
Even at rest, the body is utilizing energy to carry out functions such as pumping blood, breathing, adjusting hormones, and plenty of other functions that we aren’t even conscious of. The calories burned during these basic functions are known as the basal metabolic rate (BMR), and it can vary depending on age, sex, and body composition.
Diet and exercise can be looked at as tools to alter the already existent metabolism of an individual.
Since the BMR accounts for so much of our total energy expenditure (measured in kilojoules), increasing lean muscle mass through exercise should be among the primary goals of an individual trying to lose weight.
Strength training in conjunction with dietary changes will speed up the metabolism, allowing for someone to lose weight faster. Interestingly, nutritional changes alone will likely not be very effective because intaking too few kilojoules will lead the body to slow the metabolism down to save its energy.
If one’s metabolism is naturally fast and they are looking to gain weight, their focus should be on taking in more calories than they are burning in order to maintain a surplus. This can be accomplished by eating dense foods rich in macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Meat, grains, high-fat dairy, and nuts are all examples of dense, filling foods that provide a lot of energy as well.
In both cases, it’s important to follow some kind of resistance training program two to four times a week to ensure calories are going towards building muscle rather than just being stored in fat cells.
Nutritionally, it’s best to stick to healthy, whole foods and avoid ‘junk food’ as it may help you gain weight and will damage your health in other ways at the same time.
In terms of leveraging the knowledge of your metabolism, nutrition, and exercise to get back into pre-pandemic shape, former York Lions Athletic Therapist Arshpreet Deol offers some insight into gaining momentum again without overdoing it.
“Over the course of the pandemic, people have likely been fairly sedentary on a day-to-day basis. It is important to remind ourselves that we are not in the same shape as we were pre-quarantine. Therefore, we have to be careful of not rushing into our pre-quarantine activity levels right away, and slow the pace down in regards to resistance training and cardio,” says Deol.
“You can gauge low intensity cardio exercise by working at 40 to 50 per cent of your max heart rate, which you can get a rough estimate of by subtracting your age from 220, for example 220 minus 25: max heart rate = 195, then work at 40 per cent of this. Then, on a weekly basis you can increase by five to 10 per cent especially as the exercise(s) begin to feel easy.”
When it comes to resistance training, Deol offers similar advice in terms of gradually building.
“For resistance training, I would recommend you make note of how much resistance you were training with prior, and work at a 50 to 60 per cent level of that resistance when you return. Reduce the percentage even further if needed. You’ll want to lower the weight to something you can lift for multiple sets and at least eight to 12 reps. Then, gradually increase your level of resistance/weight by five to 10 per cent every week or bi-weekly.”
Deol also states that we should refer to the Canadian 24-hour Movement Guidelines, which illustrates what an active 24-hour day should look like for Canadians aged 18 to 65. The guideline can be found here.