Focus on making changes across the four pillars: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes
Life under lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic has bought a realm of new challenges to the day-to-day lives of millions of people worldwide, disrupting our daily routines and isolation taking a toll on both our mental and physical health.
With gyms and fitness studios closing, comfort food recipes trending and medical checkups being postponed, many of us have gained a little extra weight, or the so-called ‘quarantine 15’, used to describe the common 15 pound weight gain during self-isolation.
Being overweight puts you at greater risk of severe complications and death from COVID-19, according to Public Health England, with the risk growing ‘substantially’ as body mass index (BMI) increases. With almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England overweight or obese, having the tools to tackle quarantine weight gain may be crucial.
We examine some of the key factors associated with quarantine weight gain, suggest ways to modify your routine, and share weight management tips and strategies from Michael Brooks, personal trainer at Six3Nine and Jason Bone, head of strength at Flex Chelsea:
What causes quarantine weight gain?
Trying to keep some semblance of a regular routine against the backdrop of a global pandemic is certainly testing, but it’s not the only cause of quarantine weight gain.
Poor mental health
The most common psychological symptoms related to lockdown include depression, stress, low mood, irritability, insomnia, anger, and emotional exhaustion, research published in the Lancet found. The physiological changes that occur as a result of these symptoms – for example, a surge in levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol – can increase cravings for sugary, fatty food while at the same time slowing your body’s metabolic rate (the rate at which you expend energy at rest).
Lockdown also changed the way we interact with others, reducing physical contact with others and leading to an increased sense of social isolation. Some people try to combat their emotional distress by overeating to create a sense of fullness. Additionally, lonely people have higher circulating levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin after they eat, causing them to feel hungrier sooner, a study published in the journal Hormones and Behaviour found.
The low-level activity we don’t consider – during the commute, in the office, at lunchtime – was taken out of the equation in lockdown.
Less physical activity
Many people adjusted to a more sedentary lifestyle during lockdown, and not just because the local gym was closed. Much of the low-level activity we don’t consider – during the commute, in the office, at lunchtime – was taken out of the equation in lockdown, which means burning fewer calories per day. It might not seem like much, but it all adds up.
More processed foods
Inadequate food supplies were an ongoing issue during lockdown. Many people chose to stock up on longer-lasting frozen and processed foods – often high in salt, sugar and saturated fat – and eschew fresh fruits and vegetables to cut down on unnecessary trips to the supermarket. Additionally, spending so much time at home can also cause you to dip into the biscuit tin due to stress or boredom.
Tips for tackling quarantine weight gain
If you’re concerned about quarantine weight gain, the tips and strategies that follow will give you tools to manage your weight sustainably. Focus on making changes across the four pillars: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management.
Eat more protein
A higher protein intake reduces ghrelin levels while boosting several satiety hormones, including GLP-1, peptide YY and cholecystokinin. This leads to a reduction in your total calorie intake. ‘Eating more protein contributes to greater feelings of satiety after eating, and will contribute to the maintenance of muscle mass,’ says Brooks.
Eating more protein contributes to greater feelings of satiety after eating.
Perform compound movements
To burn maximum calories, perform exercises that require several muscle groups to work together at the same time. ‘Exercises that involve multiple joints and muscles will require more energy to perform and build the strength to prepare you for everyday life,’ says Brooks. ‘Examples of these would be a squat or a row.’ Strength training also leads to an increase in muscle mass, which in turn gives your metabolism a boost.
Get plenty of quality sleep
The importance of adequate rest and recovery can’t be overstated. Not only will you have more energy to tackle your next workout, but catching quality Zzz’s boosts production of tissue-repairing growth hormone, making you stronger and leaner. ‘Turn those electronics off at least an hour before bed, and aim for between seven and nine hours in order to keep your energy high,’ says Brooks.
As restrictions continue to be lifted, make the most of every opportunity to be active – even if it’s just getting out of your chair to stretch every half an hour. Taking regular short active breaks can make a huge difference over the course of a week. ‘There are so many benefits to increasing your movement throughout the day,’ says Bone. ‘Getting to 10,000 steps a day can drastically increase your metabolism and burn extra calories.’
Establish a routine
Set a daily wake-up time and a bedtime, and try and stick to it as much as possible. Mapping out healthy meals for the week can help you stay on track, and scheduling workouts into your diary makes you less likely to skip one. ‘Life is full of surprises that can stop you from eating healthy or sticking to your training,’ says Brooks. ‘Having a routine will help you handle these surprises.’
Work out with a friend
Setting fitness goals with a friend can motivate you to stay on track. A study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that that 95 per cent of those who started a weight loss programme with friends completed the programme, compared with 76 per cent of solo exercisers. The friends were also 42 per cent more likely to keep the weight off afterwards. ‘Having a training partner will be far more enjoyable and provide some much-needed accountability,’ says Brooks.
Cut out the sugars
Not only will cutting added sugar from your diet help you lose weight, but it may help protect against chronic diseases and boost your overall health. ‘We have developed a habit of eating high sugar, processed foods, especially during lockdown,’ says Bone. Cut down on these foods, and fill your basket with fruits and veggies instead. If you have spare time and enjoy cooking, search the internet for healthy recipe alternatives to your favourite sweet treats.
Find your ‘why’
While weight loss is a common goal shared among many, often there is another emotional element – for example, perhaps you feel that losing weight will boost your self-confidence or improve your sex drive. ‘The source of your motivation is a key factor in getting results; if you’re in it for the wrong reasons, you’re more likely to lose your way,’ says Brooks. Now is a good time to assess your lifestyle and reshape your priorities to complement your ‘why’.
Take your time
Switching up your daily routine may be especially difficult at the moment due to the challenges brought about by the coronavirus crisis, so make changes gradually, be flexible, and above all, be kind to yourself. ‘A slow and steady approach will be much safer and more attainable,’ says Brooks. ‘There are no prizes for losing weight quicker than your friends.’
Reduce alcohol consumption
As well as the high calorie content, drinking alcohol interferes with the way your body metabolises food. Your body can’t store alcohol, it’s used as your primary fuel source, and any excess glucose from carbohydrates or lipids from fats are automatically stored as fat. Drinking alcohol also damages your ability to absorb nutrients, vitamins and minerals. ‘It’s key to reduce your alcohol intake if you want to see good results,’ says Brooks. ‘It’s also really hard to train with a hangover!’
It’s key to reduce your alcohol intake if you want to see good results.
Find what you enjoy
Weight loss becomes far easier when you enjoy the process. If you don’t enjoy cooking, listen to a podcast or play music while you do it. If you find it hard to get motivated to head out for a run, try a socially-distanced gym class. ‘There are many good ways to exercise, but you’re much more likely to stick to it if you’re having fun,’ says Brooks.
And once you’ve found your jam? Stay on track, have faith in yourself, and the results will follow. ‘Once you have a plan in place, stick to it,’ says Bone. ‘Too often people start with good intentions but after a few days people fall back into bad habits. Make a plan every Sunday for the following week so you are prepared. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail!’