Pandemiflab

When the COVID-19 lockdowns started, I remember getting texts from friends with memes consisting of before and after photos showing people gaining weight during the lockdown period. We chuckled at them then. Now a newly released study cites evidence that people in fact did put on weight during the shutdown–and it’s really no laughing matter.

The study involved adult participants from 37 states and the District of Columbia who were monitored between February 1 and June 1 last year. The study indicates that, once shutdown orders were implemented in their locations, the adults began gaining weight at a rate of 0.6 pound every 10 days, or roughly a pound and a half of body weight a month. Researchers attribute the weight gain to the effect of shelter-in-place and office shutdown orders that curtailed everyday activities like walking from an office desk to a conference room or walking to the subway and standing to wait for a train. Those little snippets of exercise during the day add up, and people working from home and sitting on their behinds all day don’t get them. Add in the fact that people reported eating and drinking more during the shutdown, and you’ve got the recipe for weight gain.

Gaining a pound and a half a month may not sound like much, but multiply 1.5 pounds by the number of months the various shutdowns were imposed in different states, or authorities were encouraging people to stay at home to curb spikes and hot spots, and you’ve got more than the “freshman 10” weight gain that people talked about back in college. That’s a lot of weight for people to add in a country where obesity had already become one of the largest public health challenges. And, as any adult knows, once you’ve put on that extra weight, trying to take it off isn’t easy–particularly if you’ve fallen into bad habits.

Once the pandemic period finally ends, we’ll start to get some perspective and meaningful data on whether the prolonged shutdown orders, including the current recommendations that even fully vaccinated people should stay at home if they can, were sound public policy decisions. That involves balancing the impact of those orders on the incidence of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations against a number of other factors, like depression, suicide, economic disruption and job loss, child development . . . and basic public health issues, like daily exercise, alcohol consumption, and weight gain. We should reserve judgment until all of the meaningful data comes in, but the study noted above shows that there are negative public health consequences to shutdown orders that need to be carefully balanced against the positive effects. It’s pretty clear that the analysis is not going to show a simple, one-sided story.