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Every BODY Talks

The COVID-19 bod: What did the pandemic do to us, physically?

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Editor's note: This column contains explicit references to disordered eating, restrictive eating, and weight and may be triggering to some readers.

With gyms closed and every other person baking sourdough bread, it’s no wonder that so many Americans have reported experiencing significant weight changes during our time at home. But not all change is bad — for some, this time was used to reclaim a fitness routine and finally nail down some healthy eating habits. But for others, being home with an endless supply of snacks often led to a losing battle with emotional eating. 

A study by the American Psychological Association found 42% of adults reported gaining undesired weight during the pandemic. In total, they found that the average American gained about 1.5 pounds per month, or a total of 29 pounds throughout lockdown. But not everyone was gaining weight — 18% of adults reported losing it; on average, each lost about 26 pounds.

Not surprisingly, essential workers hit different extremes, according to the same study. Of the 24% who lost weight, they lost an average of 30 pounds. For the 50% who gained weight, they reported an average gain of 38 pounds. There is no simple explanation to the varied weight loss and gain of essential workers during the pandemic. 

As we begin to slowly get back on our feet this summer, it’s going to be important to be kind to ourselves. This includes remembering how far we’ve come, and putting our expectations for the coming year into perspective. Whether you’re happy with your body as it is coming out of this winter or not, it’s going to be an adjustment for all of us to start walking to classes and being physically present.

The good news is that your body may not have actually changed as much as you think it did. A longitudinal study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that amongst undergraduates, there was no statistically significant change in body mass index or weight from January to April 2020. Despite this, participants still reported feeling an increase in concern regarding their weight and eating habits.

From this, researchers concluded that “COVID-19 appears to be impacting college students’ perceptions of their weight more than their weight.”

Why is there this disconnect? There are many factors that could be at play, but some stand out more than others.

The factor that most likely applies to all of us is stress. As The Washington Post noted, “adults’ physical health may be declining because of problems coping with the stresses of the pandemic: grief, trauma, isolation and a change in daily habits.”

Emotions and coping mechanisms impact our physical bodies just as much as they impact our minds, and we are seeing the results of that now more than ever. As we move into this summer, and the end of the pandemic seems within reach, it is crucial that we are kind to ourselves and remember that our brains and our bodies are connected.

Most of us can’t expect to jump back into in-person living with the same mental, emotional, and physical energy that we had before. It is going to take time to rebuild not only our muscles, but also our minds and emotions. While it may be easy to focus on one or the other, it takes all of our body working together to make a successful recovery possible.   

This can mean many different things, but one major tactic is to get your sleep schedule back on track. I know it doesn’t sound exciting, but as we look forward to attending more in-person events, readjusting to being around people is going to take a lot of energy. 

Start small. Every spring I find myself frustrated that I can’t do all the same things I could when summer ended. But the reality is that winter has left me less fit than I was last summer, when I was working, hiking, and generally more active. A winter during COVID-19 only made this worse, but that just means I’ll have to remember to be more gracious with myself and be more intentional with my time.

Take the time to consider any new habits you formed in lockdown that you might want to keep. Whether that means scheduling in time for that daily walk, or taking a day to meal prep and use those new cooking skills, being stuck at home did provide us with some good opportunities to take life a little slower. 

Taking care of our brains will help us take better care of our bodies, and taking care of our bodies will help us be ready to go when the time comes. 

Reach columnist Elise Peyton at Twitter: @e_peyton113

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