Q: How has inactivity affected our bodies over the last year of isolation and prolonged sitting?
A: After more than a year of staying home during the pandemic, combined with an increased reliance on carb-heavy and sodium-packed pantry staples, many of my patients have experienced weight gain. Having worked in family medicine for more than 25 years, I am deeply concerned by this development.
Older adults’ bodies are constantly working to maintain a stable environment. After even just a few days of prolonged sitting, the health of these adults can suffer and ultimately lead to depression, loss of muscle mass, or weight gain. For middle-aged people, metabolism has slowed down and stopped burning calories as efficiently as it once did. As a result, a year of inactivity can have a very real impact.
Even before the pandemic, America was facing a health crisis, with more than 70% of the U.S. population overweight or obese, according to the CDC. And the pandemic has undeniably accelerated this trend. Sixty-one percent of adults reported experiencing undesired weight changes in the last year, with an average weight gain of 29 pounds a person.
These statistics are alarming and can worsen already existing health complications. For example, for patients already living with diabetes or those who are pre-diabetic, weight gain makes the disease more difficult to control.
For those with osteoarthritis, weight gain puts more stress on joints and causes increased pain. Being overweight or obese can also lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, and a decrease in cognitive function and overall mental health.
Fortunately, there are steps everyone can take to begin a more proactive approach to managing their weight and improving overall wellness.
The nationwide trends seen in the last year have demonstrated that exercise and fitness are essential for our physical and mental health. I start by encouraging my patients to get active: Avoid long periods of sitting and schedule short bursts of movement, such as walking around the house, throughout the day.
There’s also no better feeling than exercising in a social or group setting. With gyms once again open and warmer weather for outdoor meet-ups, I encourage you to find the place and people who make you most excited to get moving. The physical and mental benefits of fitness centers and exercising are clear.
Improving nutrition is also critical. Aim to get different colored foods on your plate and consider taking a multivitamin to maintain a healthy weight and boost your immune system.
When it comes to weight gain and its related complications, the last year has been a challenge, but it’s not too late. Make a commitment to your health today. Your body will thank you for it.
Deborah R. Longo-Malloy is a physician and assistant director of the family medicine residency and director of lifestyle medicine at Crozer Health.