Rise of obesity in the past two years of the pandemic and how people combatted it


The past two years of the pandemic have been tough on everybody’s mental, emotional, and physical health. The viral outbreak drove changes in people’s personal lives with the rise in stress and anxiety levels amid an uncertain outlook of the present and the future, as well as forcing them to adapt to the new normal, sometimes to less than pleasant consequences.

These include an irregular sleep cycle in the age of remote working and the lack of physical activity in the wake of transportation disruptions. People, especially students, young professionals, and bachelors who were stuck away from their families during the initial lockdowns, had no choice but to depend on an unhealthy and irregular diet as they lost touch with their cooks and home chefs. Supply chain disruptions and panic purchases also made access to fresh food difficult, thereby increasing the reliance on pre-processed and packaged foods.

The result? The high carbohydrate and sugar intake during these times led to changes in brain chemistry and behaviour, resulting in obesity and its side effects.

Obesity: A pandemic within a pandemic

The pandemic has been an eye opener with regards to the preparedness and resilience of our healthcare systems, putting further pressure on an already strained infrastructure. The twin problems of healthcare centres being restricted to those in severe condition and people’s reluctance to visit gyms for fear of contracting the virus before the inoculation drive had begun have further contributed to the rise in obesity.

Far from being confined to certain age groups, the problem of pandemic induced obesity has gripped the young population as well. A study in Italy pointed out that among adolescents, time spent exercising decreased even as the consumption of unhealthy junk food rose in the first three weeks of lockdowns itself. China, one of the nations best prepared to handle COVID, reported similar findings. In a study consisting of over 10,000 participants, it was found that during lockdowns, the overall BMI and obesity rose to 22.1 kg/m2 and 24.6% respectively.

What is worrying is that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people with obesity, who are thrice as likely to develop serious long-term complications such as reduced lung capacity, shortness of breath, chest pains, impaired immune system functionality, etc. Little wonder, then, that countries with greater overweight populations have higher COVID-19 mortality rates.

The implications of pandemic-induced obesity can extend to lifestyle behaviours as well. In a recent study, researchers found a correlation between higher BMIs and reduced physical activity, higher stress, lower diet quality, and increased levels of overeating. Studies indicate that obese people are also less likely to socialise, form healthy relationships, or exercise, and more likely to develop mental health issues. This data highlights how the COVID-19 outbreak has kicked off a vicious cycle. During the pandemic, people resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, sedentary behaviours, fast food consumption, etc. that led to weight gain. The increased weight, in turn, left them reluctant to socialise and at greater risk of mental health issues – ad infinitum.

When it comes to gaining weight, children have it worse than adults. The pandemic took away their license to engage in physical play integral to their development process, leading to higher obesity incidence rates. In the US, obesity amongst children and young adults jumped to 22% while, in India, experts have warned against the rise of weight-related issues amongst children.

The solution, then, must involve making strategic lifestyle changes, primarily around eating and exercising habits.

Taking back control

The first step to minimise the risk of obesity is limiting the calorific intake and consuming a well-balanced diet. We should take care to avoid carbonated drinks and refined foods and supplant them with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, etc. We should also take care to hydrate ourselves and avoid excessive alcohol, tea, and coffee intake. A healthy diet must be complemented with sufficient sleep and robust stress management.

The importance of regular exercising cannot be overstated. We should take care to ensure that we get an adequate amount of exercise every day, focusing on cardio and flexibility training. We should also schedule our workouts and enforce a time slot for gym hours. Since visiting physical gym spaces remains a point of concern for many people, they can turn to virtual fitness centers to follow a robust fitness regimen from their homes. Doing so will help them not just stay fit but also sleep better, eat healthier, and ensure improved mental well-being.

Obesity is a silent giant that has flourished in the pandemic. It is time that we identify it as a health emergency on both personal and national levels and work to combat it as a collective on our way to a truly Swasth Bharat.

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