Angela Grove Armstrong has felt the weight of the pandemic. She didn't realize just how much until she was getting ready for one of her first in-person work meetings after spending months at home and her pants didn't fit.
“It was a rude awakening,” the Fort Wayne woman says.
She is not alone.
Americans who soothed themselves with calorie-laden comfort foods are frantically trying to slim down for the perfect office bod. Gym memberships are up, personal trainers are booked and digital subscriptions to WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, were 16% higher at the end of the first quarter from a year earlier.
The pandemic-fueled isolation and anxiety meant more eating and less activity in a country where 4 in 10 adults are already obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In all, 42% of the population gained unwanted weight, averaging 29 pounds, according to the American Psychology Association's annual stress survey. As COVID-19 swept the globe, obesity was among the conditions that put infected people at greater risk.
Armstrong's company went back to in-person meetings in October before deciding in November that some positions were OK to continue working remotely. Her position was one of those.
“It was great being home when we had to be because of the pandemic,” Armstrong says.
However, she realized she wasn't getting as much exercise at home. Armstrong says she was sitting in a chair eight to 10 hours a day. “Then, you're in sweatpants and sweatshirts. I think the weight just came.”
Add that with everyone home, including her husband and two sons, she began to cook more, making comfort foods such as lasagna and desserts that included cookies and pies. “We don't usually eat that way,” she says.
Before she knew it, she had gained back 30 of the 35 pounds that she had lost prior to the pandemic.
Some companies saw opportunity in what was labeled on social media as #Quarantine15 and #PandemicPounds. Tracking virus outbreaks alongside stay-at-home restrictions, Hershey Co. pushed s'mores, the gooey confections of chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers.
“What more perfect occasion than to share s'mores with the family over the backyard barbecue?,” Michele Buck, the company's chairwoman, president and chief executive officer, said at the May 17 annual general meeting. “We altered our media and increased media in those markets where s'mores was starting to increase in consumption.”
Even executives for Ralph Lauren Corp. – a company built on a fantasy of exclusive lifestyles, with clothing paraded by impossibly slim models – relished how its elasticized denim accommodated customers' new curves.
“More comfort, stretch, is playing right into the lifestyles or the COVID weight gain,” Jane Nielsen, the chief operating and finance officer, said in a June 17, 2020, call with during an Evercore ISI Research. She, too, had put on pounds, she added.
All that heft creates a minor crisis for employees reentering human society.
Armstrong says at least half of her team, all who are female, also put on weight during the pandemic. Now they are trying to hold each other accountable and encouraging one another over Zoom calls.
Being at home also became hard for Armstrong mentally. Her family didn't go out for fear of catching the virus and she missed the face-to-face interactions with her co-workers. She says it has basically “been a year of not doing a whole lot of anything.”
She decided she needed to get help with her weight loss and reached out to Fort Wayne personal trainer Dani Rice. She meets with Rice twice a week and has been doing so more than a month.
And while she's still working on losing those pounds, mentally she is in a better place, Armstrong says.
Rice, owner of Pureformance Fitness, says many of her new clients experienced the same thing as Armstrong. “That's exactly what happened; ... over the pandemic, they probably ate a little too much.”
Rice says clients who gained weight during the pandemic averaged between 10 to 12 pounds. Now they are trying to get back into those clothes after being used to comfy clothes.
People working from home became sedentary and they weren't getting up and traveling to work and then home, or walking to the parking lot or even taking the stairs, Rice says. “A lot more calories are burned in every day life that people don't realize,” Rice says. “Small things make an impact.”
When helping people lose weight, Rice starts with a person's eating habits, looking at how many calories are being consumed compared with what they are burning each day. If someone is more sedentary, she will add in more activity.
If you are working from home, Rice suggests getting moving more during the day, including taking a walk at lunch or after work. She says people should be conscious about how much they are moving during the day.
And if you are back in the office, she suggests eating every few hours and have some healthy snacks in your desk to help curb cravings.
The flip side to the weight gain is that Rice also has had clients lose weight while working from home because they weren't exposed to the snacks that were usually brought in by co-workers.
Jason Minich, owner of Catalyst Fitness in Fort Wayne, says in the last few weeks his fitness centers have seen a number of people coming back who had stopped working out during the pandemic, or hadn't worked out in years. Usually this kind of rush is seen more in the colder months, not in summer, Minich says.
“People are realizing they've got to do something,” he says. “That's the biggest part; people have just gotten out of a routine.”
Minich says a gym has the resources and trainers to help get that routine going again. Once you begin working out, he suggests having a workout buddy to help keep each other accountable. There are also group classes, which are starting to pick up as people are looking for ways to be accountable.
“People miss having that community and connecting with other people,” Minich says.
– Bloomberg News contributed to this story.