Are you finding that your summer hiking clothes don't fit quite as well as they did last year? You're not alone! A small (269 subjects) study published in JAMA in the spring of 2021 reported that enrolled subjects gained an average of 1.5 pounds per month during the shelter-in-place period. At that pace, Americans would have gained nearly 20 pounds each during the year-long pandemic restrictions. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association (APA) surveyed over 3,000 people and found that nearly half gained more weight than they intended. The average weight gain for those subjects was 29 pounds.
When clients reach out to me for adventure training, they also typically mention they would like to lose some of the weight they've gained. They feel like their weight is holding them back from hiking as well as they would like. To push back the pounds, you need to understand why you gained them in the first place.
Decreased activity - Sure, your gym closed, and you weren't able to go to your beloved spin class. There's no doubt that this meant a decrease in expended calories. However, more impactful is the decrease in daily movement - your baseline level of activity. We often underestimate how much movement we do throughout the day. Even if you have a desk job, you walk to work from the bus stop or your car, you walk to lunch, to the drugstore, to a meeting, to the coffee machine down the hall, etc. You walk through the grocery store, carry and lift heavy grocery sacks, or carry a child in and out of daycare. Shelter-in-place restrictions shrunk your world to the distance from your bedroom to the kitchen and significantly decreased your overall activity. Therefore, even if you blew the dust off those old Tae Bo tapes, your daily calorie burn was still much lower than before the lockdown.
Increased calorie intake - Let's face it, somebody had to eat all that sourdough bread! Grocery delivery and pick up made getting the goods even easier than before. Plus, working from the kitchen table meant close and frequent access to snacks. And, don't forget those home-based happy hours. Nearly 25% of the people surveyed by the APA reported increased alcohol consumption, which means a lot of extra calories.
High levels of stress - The same study by the APA found that 48% of people surveyed felt increased stress levels since the pandemic started. Job uncertainty, everyone home together for extended periods, and worry about the virus and loved ones made stress levels rise during lockdown! Chronic stress increases cortisol levels which stimulate appetite and increase overeating.
Lack of sleep - The APA study also revealed that over one-third of Americans are sleeping less than before (also likely due to stress). Sleep helps regulate hormones that manage feelings of hunger. Lack of sleep may disrupt normal metabolism and lowers energy levels which leads to decreased activity.
So now what?
The pandemic isn't over, but restrictions are lifting, and life is returning to normal in many places. While your first inclination may be to head back to the gym and cycle those pounds away, you'll be frustrated if you don't address these other four factors as well.
Increase daily step count - Monitor your steps to find out what you're doing now, and increase it by 5,000. If you're still working from home, schedule walks around the neighborhood in the morning, noon, and evening. If you have stairs in your home, do stair repeats several times per day. Increasing your baseline activity is a small change that can make a significant impact.
Monitor calorie intake - Use an app like My Fitness Pal to monitor your calorie intake. Start with a 200 to 300 calorie decrease per day. It won't feel like dieting, but it will help your body burn fat for energy.
Manage stress - Increasing activity will help with stress, but so will activities like meditating, journaling, and engaging in hobbies you enjoy. Working and schooling from home make it feel like you never get away from your to-do's so be sure to carve out space for enjoyment and relaxation.
Sleep more - Make it a priority to get in seven to eight hours each night. Close the computer and shut off Netflix. Your dreams will be more restful than the pseudo rest you're getting chilling in front of the screen.
Excess weight shouldn't prevent anyone from hiking. However, a pandemic weight gain can negatively impact your health by raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, and adding stress to your joints.
I'm here to help! If you're frustrated with your pandemic weight gain and want to improve your post-pandemic fitness level, contact me to find out how The Healthy Hiker Virtual Program can help you become a healthier hiker!