Lockdown and weight gain – should you worry?

48 percent of people say they have put on weight during lockdown in a new survey. But in a time of heightened stress, it’s important to have ‘self-compassion’, say the experts. Here are their tips for how to improve your health...

People are constantly commenting about their waistlines on social media, while surveys investigate how much weight we’re gaining in lockdown. Over recent months, it’s become impossible to ignore the analysis of whether our changing diet – due to food availability and lifestyle shifts – is impacting our weight.

A new King’s College London and Ipsos MORI survey of 2,254 people has addressed the question. 48 percent of respondents say they have put on weight during lockdown, the same percentage report feeling more anxious or depressed than usual, and 29 percent say they have drunk more alcohol. But given the anxiety many people are experiencing, should we be so worried about the number on the scales?

Here experts reveal how to improve your physical (and mental) health without focusing exclusively on weight.

Is gaining weight really a big issue?

“People’s anxiety and stress levels are high, and some people will eat more to help them deal with it”, says nutritionist Priya Tew. And she warns that worrying about a small amount of weight gain is only going to add to that anxiety.

“We know that right now people’s mental health is quite precarious and they haven’t necessarily got access to things that would usually help. So we’ve got to be mindful that we don’t make people feel guilty or more anxious”, she says.

If you’re concerned about your diet, it can help to focus on health and nutrition rather than the line on your scales.

Nutritionist Priya Tew.

How can you address your diet in a healthy way?

“Focus on what you can add to, rather than remove from, your diet”, explains Priya. “Instead of dieting and making yourself feel negative, plan something like eating an extra portion of fruit every day so you’ve got something positive to aim for. If you don’t manage to do it, it’s not the end of the world.”

“You can focus on ‘Am I getting my portions of fruit and vegetables every day? Am I getting my protein, wholegrains or carbohydrates?’ And it’s okay to have the occasional slice of cake.”

Priya suggests starting off with small changes. “Instead of thinking ‘here are 10 things I need to change’, focus on easy things you can do right now that have been helpful in the past, because then you’ll start to feel like you’ve achieved something with just a little change.

“When you say, ‘I should not eat that chocolate cake’, it makes you want the cake more. Then if you avoid it, you might end up having something else to ‘make up’ for the food you’ve not eaten. Food isn’t a reward or a punishment. It’s something to nourish us... as well as being super delicious.”

Can exercise help?

Personal trainer Zanna Van Dijk, who’s one-third of #girlgains and co-presenter of the BBC podcast Fit & Fearless, has seen first-hand how people have been struggling without their usual exercise routine – and it’s something she can relate to.

“When I got the news about lockdown I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to work out at home. How am I going to motivate myself when I live in a small flat with no outside space to train in? I’m going to have to train on my small office floor and I’ve got no equipment to do that.’ I kind of panicked. I really enjoyed the gym and exercise classes”, she admits.

“While the first week was a struggle, I soon found my feet and worked out what type of training I was going to do, and now I feel like I’m really in a rhythm.”

Zanna had to switch her view from, ‘I’m not going to be able to…’ to ‘What can I do with what I’ve got?’. The biggest issue people have come to her with is that they feel their pre-lockdown exercise goals (which they were achieving) are now out of reach.

Influencer and personal trainer, Zanna Van Dijk.

Change your exercise expectations

Like Priya, Zanna thinks the key to feeling less anxious about the new reality is self-compassion. “People need to be gentle with themselves. We’re in a global pandemic, so don’t put too many expectations on yourself and your training routine – that’s only going to negatively impact you. Set new goals, which are gentle and more realistic for your current situation.”

An avid exercise lover, she’s using the time to find new exercises she enjoys. “I’ve started running, which I’d never really done properly before, and now I love it. I’ve started to do pilates too – I’ve found lots of videos online and tried them.”

Zanna hopes people will make the most of the free content and resources available, and is producing real-time exercise videos focusing on strength training using little-to-no equipment. “Content creators are working their socks off to produce free content to help people get moving... and it’s all at your fingertips.

“Don’t think ‘I have to do one whole hour of exercise all at once’. You could do 15 minutes after your morning coffee, and take a 15-minute walk at lunch and in the evening.”

She also believes getting outside for fresh air and exercise (which could just be a gentle walk around the block) will help your mental health. “Explore what’s on your doorstep, whether that’s before, during or after work, and then if you do have time at the weekend go for a longer walk.”

Is the health crisis negatively impacting your view of your body?

Periods of uncertainty can increase anxiety for those who have an unhealthy relationship with food. Chartered psychologist and former Great British Bake Off finalist, Kimberley Wilson, helps people who have disordered eating and examines the emotional relationship people have with food.

“An awful lot of people use food – or the control of food – as their coping mechanism for anxiety, or to get a sense of self-esteem or self-worth, to say to themselves, ‘I’m doing all the right things, I’m following this admirable, aspirational lifestyle’. A lot of people derive self-esteem by feeling they are ticking those boxes. Without the gym or the normal food they eat, I think a lot of people have suddenly felt exposed”, says Kimberley.

Psychologist, Kimberley Wilson

If you’re struggling with a negative self-image, what can you do?

“People have tried to carry on as if things are normal. But there is nothing about this situation that is normal”, explains Kimberley.

“You won’t be able to do the same things you did before, it would be strange to think you could. So, treat yourself with the same kindness you would show if someone was explaining their situation to you. If someone said, ‘I’ve been feeling really panicky and all I’ve been able to eat is potato waffles and baked beans – that’s all I’ve wanted to eat’, you would in all likelihood say, ‘that’s absolutely fine, if that makes you feel better and until we can return to our normal lives, you do what you need to do’.

“Extend the same kindness to yourself. We all... have moments of difficulty. There’s no sense in being angry or annoyed with yourself because you feel like that. Try to think, ‘what should I do with this information now and how can I be kind to myself? What do I need to help myself through it?’

“Think ‘aren’t you glad you’re healthy? Aren’t you glad your body is well enough to get you through this situation, to manage the stress and look after your family?’

“There’s a technique called ‘realistic optimism’, which I describe to my clients as starting a sentence with ‘At least…’, so you might finish that with ‘I’m well’ or ‘I’m healthy’. It helps re-orient away from the idea of the deficits of your body to actually what it has and what it’s capable of, and the positives of your health.”

If you have been affected by eating disorders, help and support is available.