Even for those of us who dodged the virus itself, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in more ways than one.
We remember March 2020 as a frozen screenshot in time: We stayed at home, let our gym memberships expire and ate whatever was available in the cupboards.
According to studies within the past year, most people decreased their physical activity, increased sedentary time and gained weight.
George Kelley, professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, said these outcomes aren’t surprising, though he believes the key now is to push forward and leave unhealthy lifestyles in the dust like the peak of COVID-19.
A solid first step is a true, personal desire to lead a healthy life, rather than feeling shamed into it, Kelley said.
“Living a healthy lifestyle is a choice that should be driven by one wanting to live a healthy lifestyle versus feeling like they are being forced to live a healthy lifestyle,” said Kelley, who’s also the director of the Meta-Analytic Research Group in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
“While it is well established that being overweight, and especially obese, are major public health problems both in the U.S. and beyond, body-shaming does not lead to improved health.”
Kelley noted studies that suggested that the more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the greater the risk of gaining weight and dying from any cause.
“In addition, and not surprisingly, fat shaming has been associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders and avoiding exercise,” he said. “Broadly, the best approach is probably one that focuses on health versus weight, emphasizing that health benefits may best be achieved by focusing on behaviors and providing positive versus negative reinforcement.”
So how much of an impact did the pandemic have on our personal health?
As head of a research group, Kelley keeps his hand on the pulse of health-related studies across the world. Kelley noted a systematic review of 19 studies that found high rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress and stress in the general population of multiple countries, including the U.S.
Additionally, an American Psychological Association Survey conducted in February 2021 reported that 42% of adults reported gaining more weight than they intended since the pandemic started, with a median weight gain of 15 pounds.
Other studies reported that adults consumed more alcohol, with reasons being increased stress and boredom.
The linkage between physical and mental health was on full display during the pandemic, Kelley said.
With gyms reopened and vaccines rolled out, more people have reentered society at various paces.
If thinking about reversing the negative health effects from the pandemic, modifying behaviors must take place, Kelley advised.
“With respect to physical activity, a behavior that has the potential to have a positive impact on more physical and mental health outcomes than any other non-pharmacological or pharmacological approach, the biggest challenge for many is overcoming barriers,” he said.
Seven specific barriers, and ways to conquer them, according to Kelley, are:
- Lack of time (identify at least 30-minute time periods for physical activity)
- Social support (invite people to exercise with you)
- Lack of energy (recognize that exercise will make you more energetic)
- Lack of motivation (place exercise on your calendar)
- Lack of skill (activities such as walking and climbing stairs don’t require new skills)
- High costs and lack of facilities (consider walking, jogging, pushups, etc.)
- Weather conditions (exercise indoors)
Eating behaviors are also a cornerstone to a healthy lifestyle, Kelley added.
Routine = Success
Kelley himself practices what he preaches, and intentionally increased his weekly regimen of cycling six days, resistance training three times and walking/hiking 15 to 20 miles.
“Why the increase? Put simply, my goal was to maintain my current body weight, and more importantly, my percent body fat, by balancing the number of kilocalories consumed with the number of kilocalories expended each day,” Kelley said.
Kelley, 64, attributes his lifetime behavior of being physically active to the following factors:
- Making physical activity a priority and regular part of a daily routine, similar to showering and brushing teeth.
- Placing it on a daily “things to do” list.
- The support and reinforcement from someone close. In Kelley’s case, it’s his wife, Kristi Kelley, a WVU research instructor, who runs more than seven miles per day and does resistance training and walks/hikes with him.
But Kelley does not want his regimen to intimidate others. You’ve got to start somewhere, he said.
“It’s important for people to find the right balance for themselves,” he noted.