It's a problem we've swept under the rug for months. We sat on our couches, stuffed our faces with takeout, and didn't bother checking the scale. We put on a few pounds that we jokingly referred to as the "quarantine 15."
It's understandable. As a nation, we experienced a trauma response to the pandemic. With mounting stress from the economy, unemployment, and a deadly virus, the last thing we wanted to focus on was our growing midsections.
In fact, about half of all women and a quarter of all men report putting on weight during the pandemic lockdowns. That's according to a poll on medical news site WebMD. And data from weight-loss groups like Weight Watchers also noted increases in unhealthy foods. In Weight Watchers, members track what foods they eat. And as it turns out, we're eating a lot more baked goods and other "comfort" foods.
But here's the problem: We have more evidence that COVID-19 is far more dangerous for folks who carry excess fat.
Does this mean that our recent weight gains have put us in jeopardy? Not quite. Although obesity does lead to higher rates of death from COVID-19, obesity is a chronic disease. It's not just something that happens after a few weeks of gluttony.
But we can't ignore the fact that even before the pandemic, the U.S. was one of the top nations in the world for having the highest obesity rate.
In fact, about half of our population is either overweight or obese. A Lancet study a few years ago pointed out that although the U.S. only has 5% of the world's population, we have 15% of the world's population of folks who are over what's considered a healthy weight based on height.
So if you or someone you know are part of the population who are obese, you should understand exactly why this increases your risk of problems from COVID-19. For starters, carrying extra weight means putting a strain on a muscle called the diaphragm. This is the muscle tucked right under your ribs. As it contracts and relaxes, it forces your lungs to expand and contract to breathe. (When you have hiccups, it's due to a spasm of this muscle.)
If your diaphragm has extra weight around it, it has a harder time doing its job effectively. So if you have a respiratory infection like COVID-19, your body has to work even harder to breathe.
We also know that extra fat tissue leads to inflammation and weakens our immune response. Both these things leave us more vulnerable to all diseases, including COVID-19.
Fortunately, I've written for years about the best and easiest ways to lose not just the "quarantine 15" but any amount of weight. Here are three of my favorite tips:
1. Eat less. It's really that simple. But I'm not talking about portion control or rigid measurements. I'm talking about fasting.
Fasting helps you lose weight in the long term as well as control insulin levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and protect your heart. But you don't have to skip meals for a whole day. Restricting your eating to a short period of time (such as an eight-to-10 hour span) does more to lower blood sugar levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure in the long term, rather than avoiding eating over a full day.
Try eating from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Or even just six hours and eat between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. And no snacking in the interim. The best part of this type of fasting is that you can either reduce how many calories you consume, or you can keep it the same. You can adjust as needed depending on how you feel and if you want to lose weight.
2. Practice mindfulness. A few years ago, a Japanese study found that folks who reported eating slowly (instead of moderately or quickly) had a 42% lower risk of obesity in a five-year period.
It makes sense... Taking your time to eat allows you to produce the hormones needed to trigger the feeling of fullness before you overeat. It takes about 20 minutes for all the chemicals in your stomach to tell your brain you are at full satiety. So, meals should last at least 20 minutes.
Now, there's no good measure for timing a meal to see if you're eating too slowly or quickly. But a good trick is to pay attention to your chewing. Chewing mindfully means taking your time. Try setting down your utensils in between bites and paying attention to how you feel and how the meal tastes. And take breaks between bites. A good conversation or a beverage will help – I love to have wine with my dinners out with friends. Just be sure to wrap it up at least two hours before your bedtime.
3. Get moving. There's nothing better for improving your physical and mental health than getting up and active. It helps keep your heart healthy, your immune system robust, and helps you lose weight.
If you want intense exercise without sacrificing too much time, high-intensity interval training ("HIIT") is as close to ideal exercise as there is. It mixes moderate movement with short bursts of intense training. And research show HIIT gives you the same benefits as a longer, less-intense cardio workout would.
If you want to try HIIT, you can do I what I do...
I do 20- to 45-second bursts of intense movement followed by 20- to 90-second periods of rests or slow movements for one cycle (or rep). So if you're a beginner, you could walk moderately for a minute, then jog quickly for 20 seconds, then repeat. I try to do four to eight of these cycles almost daily. (With an easy warm-up and cooldown, that's about 20 to 30 minutes a day.) And during cold or rainy days, I love doing this on a stationary bicycle indoors, too.
Remember, being significantly overweight for a long stretch of time is just one of several risk factors for COVID-19. But unlike other factors like age, weight is a factor you can control with tips like the ones above.
Even though I'm not overly concerned about the "quarantine 15," we need to pay attention to our health now more than ever. That's why in my latest issue of Retirement Millionaire, I wrote about the benefits of movement for our immune systems and overall well-being. I even included some other tips to get active, starting with just a few minutes a day. Click here to read it now. If you're not a subscriber, click here to get started today.
What We're Reading...
- The true risks from obesity and COVID-19.
- Something different: Why your pizza costs more these days.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
August 20, 2020