Back in 2017, I shared my attempts to get back into running after many years, specifically referencing the “Freshman 15” and other corpulent milestones. Since then, I’ve done a fairly good job of keeping up the runs and avoiding salty snacks in front of the TV in my normal day-to-day life. Or at least, I did, until March 13, 2020. As many of us in the USA recall, that was the day ‘normal’ changed.
The author in 2019, completing another stunning sub-hour 5K. (image: PACE Runs)
Since going on lockdown, I am among the countless folks around the globe who have been spending far more time binge-watching one television series after another while exploring every flavor of ice cream and potato chips known to man. Not to mention less time walking and moving around, let alone running. The result of over six months of this? Welcome to the “Covid 19.” That’s right, an average weight gain so prevalently recorded by stressed out and sedentary people that we needed a name for it (some of you may be fortunate enough to have only packed on the “Quarantine 15”).
image retrieved from http://www.vereencenter.com/
With the backdrop of rising positive tests and deaths from the virus, at a time when we are separated from friends and family and have limited access to our usual support systems, and as we are cut off from most cultural, recreational and entertainment events, it’s a natural inclination to seek comfort elsewhere. Because many of us remain sheltering in place, we have access to food 24/7, and fewer opportunities to move around (other than the round trip from couch to fridge and back). That combination can cause anyone to put on weight, and speaking as one who knows, for those of us who seem to gain easily, this pandemic has brought on a significant and sobering side effect.
This is what you DON’T want to see on a weight tracking app…welcome to 2020. (image retrieved from myfitnesspal.com)
It doesn’t help that working from home also means a scale is always nearby. Weighing oneself frequently is a good idea to monitor daily changes. Unless of course, those daily changes are steadily heading in the wrong direction. Having reached new lows in 2020 (and by “lows” I mean scale-busting “highs”), I realize a change is needed. I also know I am not alone — pretty much everyone I know has confessed to at least a slight increase in body weight (thank goodness for the ‘Stop Video’ option on remote meeting platforms!).
image retrieved from https://elearning.ufl.edu/
It may seem trite and superficial to worry about gaining a few pounds while socially distancing. Gratitude for one’s good health is certainly more appropriate at this moment in history than focusing on our appearance. But the truth is, gaining weight during the pandemic threatens more than just our pride. In addition to bringing on emotional issues, weight gain — even a slight increase — can raise blood pressure, produce inflammation in our bodies and render us more vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus, should we contract it. So it’s not just vanity after all; in addition to wearing a mask, staying at a safe distance from others and washing hands regularly, we also need to do our best to stay fit.
image retrieved from http://www.defrancostraining.com
Naturally, the pandemic is making this more challenging, with closures and restricted use of gyms limiting one’s choices for exercise. This is exacerbated by the need to stay apart, which doesn’t lend itself to close contact competitive sports or counting on a workout buddy to inspire you. All of this means you must be firmly committed, flexible and creative in order to maintain a fitness regime in the present.
The pandemic closed down my local gym – and sent me scampering to our basement storage to retrieve every mismatched pair of dumbbells I could scrounge up! (image: Philip Papas)
Like everyone else who suddenly realized they’d been sent to their rooms for the foreseeable future, their gym memberships frozen, their tai chi classes and cycling clubs and team sports leagues deactivated, I made a decision from the outset of the pandemic that I would NOT allow my never-ending quest for health and fitness to be derailed! Yes, it would take dedication. Of course, there would be challenges and limitations. Certainly, there would be necessary compromises. But where’s there’s a will, there’s a way! Except, when the spirit is willing and the flesh is too…well, fleshy.
Yikes. (image: Philip Papas)
My own approach to dealing with this challenge has been to listen to my body, as well as my inner voice of kindness. It’s natural to crave comfort at a time of significant worry and unease, so allowing for an occasional indulgence is more realistic than attempting to adhere to a perfect diet. As long as you stick to a healthy meal plan most of the time, you should have a food intake that balances good nutrition and satisfaction. This entails identifying what your body needs to ensure you are taking in all the essentials vitamins and nutrients. And don’t forget about hydration – we all need to remember to drink adequate amounts of water each day.
If you have the space and funds available, you can easily DIY a corner of your garage or basement into a safe personal gym. (image: David Dubovsky)
If you need help staying on the right track, an online app is a great way to monitor your daily consumption. My choice is MyFitnessPal.com, but there are many others. These tools allow you to enter the foods you eat, often storing exact brands and portions so you can easily retrieve them. In many cases you can simply use your smartphone’s camera to scan the bar code on a food item to add it to your daily food diary. A good site will not only count your daily calories, but also break them down into macros (showing the percentages of protein, fats and carbohydrates consumed, ideally with detailed information for each, such as saturated vs. unsaturated fats), tally up vitamins and nutrients towards recommended daily allowances, keep tabs on how much fluid you’re drinking and incorporate data such as weight and exercise. MyFitnessPal is one of several apps that can be linked with other exercise tracking sites so your specialized information can be coordinated in one place. This level of analytics can be a huge help in controlling weight gain and loss.
If you miss the spinning class at your gym, a simple home trainer attaches to your rear wheel in minutes, turning any bicycle into a stationary bike! (image: David Dubovsky)
For example, it’s a no-brainer that to lose weight you must do one or both of the following: reduce calories consumed, or increase calories burned. But this can be complex for many of us, and everyone’s experience is unique, so the trick is usually finding what works for you. In my case, I found that the time of day mattered as much as what I ate; when I consumed more calories for breakfast and lunch, I usually ate less for dinner. Conversely, if I was careful not to overeat earlier in the day, I would increase my food intake in the evening. But using a food app allowed me to see a pattern, namely that on days when I ate more calories earlier with a lighter dinner, I consistently ate fewer calories overall. This falls in line with an often repeated maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but in my case, it’s a crucial reinforcement to see the proof in my own food diary. I have never been a big fan of breakfast, preferring to skip morning meals, eat a moderate lunch and follow up with a large dinner. The results of my calorie tracking show that I need to overcome this natural inclination if I want to control my weight or reduce it.
Gentle activities like yoga or even stretching can be combined with meditation to help clear the body and mind of stress. Bonus points if you can get outdoors to do it! (image: Pixabay)
Similarly, exercise trackers (I use FitBit and Garmin Connect) allow you to manually input workouts or sync with a device. As mentioned in a previous blog post, this not only preserves inspiring memories of successful workouts, but over time provides clues into what patterns of exercise work best for you. My workout diary has helped me determine how much exercise is too much, and I can predict when it’s best to back off to avoid injuries and burnout. It also shows me (if nothing else, by the fact that the calendar looks blank from lack of activity) when I need to get moving!
This is what my workout diary looked like a couple of weeks into the pandemic. Note, I did find time to weigh myself on the last day… Yeah — that was a mistake… (image retrieved from connect.garmin.com)
As far as what kind of exercise to do, there are certainly some choices more conducive to staying active during a pandemic. Working out at home rather than at a gym is safer, and with a little ingenuity you can carve out a small space to set up some weights, kettle bells, step stools or an exercise bicycle. While working out alone is the safest practice at present, following along with an instructional video or online class is a suitable added incentive.
If space and funds are limited, yoga is an ideal activity to do in the home; all that is required is space for a floor mat. Yoga, stretching and meditation are actually the perfect activities while we shelter at home, as they not only get us moving physically, but also help keep our bodies limber and flexible, which is so important when we are doing much more sitting and far less moving. Meditating offers welcome relief from stress and introduces structure at a time when regular daily routines have been disrupted. The mental and emotional benefits are additional much needed perks you can get from a regular yoga routine.
Hiking is a great way to safely take an invigorating break from your confined spaces; just make sure to exercise caution around other hikers in crowded areas or on narrow paths. (image: Philip Papas)
If you start going a bit stir crazy, you can certainly venture outdoors, with safety being a simple matter of wearing a mask and socially distancing. Hiking is a perfect choice, as it offers both gentle exertion and a welcome dose of Mother Nature. There are lots of trails outside the city that are easily reached by car, if you have that option. But if you cannot get out into the woods, there is nothing wrong with doing an urban hike. Most neighborhoods have quieter, less crowded streets that let you explore new views and vistas that are closer than you’d think. Local parks also are a great destination to conveniently get in your 10,000 steps while enjoying sunshine, trees and birdsong. Many areas of New York City also currently have Open Streets which close sections of roadways to cars for specific hours of the day, thus affording more safe space for walking and other healthy activities.
A great hike could be just a few blocks away from your home! (image: Carrie Levinson)
The bottom line is, staying fit, keeping your immune system and mental health at their best and balancing occasional comforting indulgences with a healthy daily diet can be challenging during a pandemic. But with a little planning, creativity and proper monitoring of your efforts, it can be done! How are you staying healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic? Share your favorite nutritional and workout tips in the comments below!