How The Pandemic Caused Illinoisans To Pack On The Pounds

Aug 6, 2020

Credit Wikimedia Commons/ User Angelsharum

Weight gain is becoming an increasingly prominent issue as people spend more time indoors due to the pandemic. 

It goes by many names. The "Quarantine 15." "Pandemic pounds." Time in isolation and fewer opportunities for exercise have expanded area waistlines. Audra Wilson is a clinical dietician at Delnor Hospital in Geneva. She said some of this can be attributed to eating more.

“People tend to use food to cope a little bit and food can kind of make us feel better when we’re feeling down, especially carbohydrates, and those are foods we can eat quite a few of,” she said.

This is particularly true for people who may have gotten their meals from elsewhere.

“Some people aren’t cooks, haven’t had experience with that in the past and are now not having that option at work to have maybe lunch in a cafeteria, and having more time at home in the kitchen results in more snacking,” she said. 

The pandemic has also limited certain activities, which Wilson said can hit some groups particularly hard.

“People that don’t have family and friends in the area, people that relied on group activities for their social calendar to be full find themselves at home and not able to take advantage of those same opportunities.” 

Exercise, at least initially, wasn’t too much of a problem when temperatures rose in March. Kishwaukee YMCA Healthy Living Coordinator Kayla Heimerman explained. 

“All of a sudden, nature was our playground," she said. "We could go out for walks, go out for runs, bike rides. Those were all deemed very safe activities to do, especially because they were outside.” 

And while that helped with some exercise, the shutdown of gyms and fitness centers took other opportunities away. Heimerman said this was especially true with her organization.

"I think there was a little bit of a mourning period because it was like, 'Okay, I can’t go to the Y. Now what do I do? How do I get my classes? I don’t have a treadmill at home. What am I supposed to do?'” 

When the Y was shut down, Heimerman said virtual classes helped those who were looking for routines and guided instruction. Nevertheless, she said, it was also important to adapt routines to a home environment.

“You don’t have a box to step on like we do at the gym, use the bottom two steps of your stairwell. Or we can do this with the edge of your couch instead of a bench. I tried to adapt it so that it was accessible and not intimidating and easy to fit into the day.” 

At the end of June, the Kishwaukee YMCA slowly reopened its different facilities as state guidelines were relaxed. There had already been outdoor group exercise, but Heimerman said the pool proved very popular.

“That has been the one big thing. As soon as we opened up the reservations for lap swimming, those got gobbled up really quickly.” 

The lap pool only has eight lanes available at a time, which makes things even tighter. She said the wellness center also saw an uptick in visitors, even though it didn’t reach the same kind of capacity.

“A lot of our regular weight lifters come back to use our free weight area. A lot of our older clientele are really glad to be back to have our strength machines in the back of the Y.”

As fitness facilities reopen, people will have increasing opportunities for guided or specialized exercise. But Wilson, the dietician, said exercise is only part of what it takes to lose weight. Controlling what you eat is also important, and she said that requires adjusting your habits.

“Regular intervals between meals, having that breakfast when you wake up, and then eating something that hopefully contains a little protein every four or five hours after that.” 

The key with both food and exercise, she said, is consistency.

“Think of a time that’s going to be more convenient for you. If you’re coming alive at seven or eight at night, do your exercise at that time," she said. "The best time is when you’ll do it, so similarly, with your diet, you want to make changes you can maintain long term, even if it’s just not getting a second plate.” 

Finally, Wilson said even though the goal of many people will be to work off the weight they’ve gained during the pandemic as quickly as they can, it won’t be an immediate process.

“Our average weight loss with diet and exercise is around a half pound to two pounds a week and if you time that out, it’s going to be quite a few months before that weight loss goal is hit.”

And with more fitness and dining opportunities reopening in Phase 4, there should be plenty of options to help facilitate that process.