The Quarantine 15? Should You be Concerned About Weight Gain During COVID-19?

Fitness and Workouts, Nutrition and Diet

In the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we’ve all had to learn a lot of new terminology. Things like ‘flattening the curve’, ‘PPE’, or ‘ARDS’. But have you heard of the ‘Quarantine-15?’

In case you’re wondering what the heck it’s all about, the Quarantine-15 is a little play on words on the “Freshman-15”, a joke made about the common experience of weight gain in someone’s first year of University or College. In this case, the ‘Quarantine-15’ is referring to weight gain while self-isolating at home, whether it’s from all that homemade baking, or the fact that almost all of our physical activities are on hold. And some people are pissed about it.

Two Sides

As with most things, there’s two sides to this story, and a variety of COVID-19 experiences that is shaping how people might respond to the idea of weight gain during this time. The first is people poking a little fun at their newfound cinnamon bun hobby, or lamenting the fact that they haven’t had a workout in over a month. Comedians, radio show hosts, and my social media feeds are full of memes, discussion, and jokes about everyone’s inevitable COVID-19 weight gain. People are bonding and finding the humor in this shared experience, and for many, it’s perceived as harmless fun. Yes, these types of jokes point to some of the larger societal issues we face in the realm of fatphobia and weight stigma, but are certainly nothing new when it comes to COVID-19.

With that of course comes the not-so-harmless side. For every person making jokes and feeling relatively at ease with the change in their eating or physical activity habits, there’s at least one or two more who are seriously terrified of gaining weight during this pandemic. I mean seriously terrified to the point where it’s impacting their mental health and wreaking havoc on their food behaviors. Whether we’re talking about someone who is a chronic yo-yo dieter, or maybe in the throes of an eating disorder, these gym closures and endless time in front of the computer or TV is leading to even more stress or anxiety. For many athletes these shutdowns occurred so unexpectedly that training routines changed literally overnight, requiring massive adjustments in nutrition planning that we just weren’t prepared for.

A New Normal?

I’ve seen many practitioners sharing messages that this is NOT the time for worrying about healthy food behaviours, just simply getting through the day is good enough. And I certainly agreed at the beginning of this pandemic when we were all hopeful that life would be returning to normal in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and as the weeks have stretched on to over a month now where I live, it’s starting to forget what normal really felt like. Knowing how important physical activity and good nutrition is to both mental and physical health, maybe it is a good time to start re-evaluating our health-promoting habits. Do we need to start juice cleanses and detoxes and do a million jumping jacks every day in our living room? No, but those things all sound like bad ideas anyway.

Local Context

Now, many of my readers live here in Manitoba, where we’ve been very lucky to have been minimally affected by COVID-19. We had government-initiated shut downs early, and so far our efforts have been keeping case numbers and fatality numbers much lower than other areas. Our collective experience has been less about surviving the chaos of a pandemic, and more about finding creative ways to pass the time. I know others have been facing a very different reality, so I thought it was important to share some of my local context.

Part of my nutrition counselling strategy with clients is planning for when things don’t go as planned. No matter how prepared you are, life will always hand you bumps in the road. How we deal with those bumps is what really matters. Now, I’ll admit that most of the time I’m talking more along the lines of ‘what to do when there’s unexpected birthday cake in the break room at work‘, or ‘how to plan meals ahead of time to save weeknight dinner stress‘ not so much ‘what to do in the midst of a global pandemic when our lives have been completely turned upside down‘, but life is unpredictable right?

We all have plenty to worry about right now, whether it’s our job security, how our finances will look down the road, or what other big life event will be cancelled this year. We’ve all got enough worry to go around, so instead let’s try and turn this into an opportunity for some self-reflection, and maybe come out of this unscathed. Or at least, less scathed.

How are you coping with stress right now?

You might be really struggling at the moment if your go-to coping mechanism was your physical activity. You also might be really struggling right now if your go-to coping mechanism for stress is homemade baking (We’ve all seen the store shelves- there’s a LOT of baking going on right now!). Or maybe it’s a few drinks after the kids go to bed. Regardless of what it is if you’ve noticed that you don’t feel like your usual self lately it might be time for a change, and getting back into a regular exercise routine is a great place to start. It may not be what you were used to before if you were hitting the gym regularly, but a walk around the block (while social distancing of course!), or doing a little yoga or dance video in your living room can make all the difference. If you’re looking for something SUPER fun (and great if you’re too shy to ever check out a class in person), check out Drop in Dance Winnipeg’s online videos. They’re accepting donations to help support their dance studio during the shutdowns so if you can pitch in a few dollars please do so!

Adjustments: Back To The Basics

Personally, I was pretty devastated when I found out my gym would be closing down. Physical activity is an important part of my daily routine, and it was something I did not want to see change. Since then I’ve had a few races cancelled (bummer!) and have had to adjust to a new fitness routine without a real ‘goal’ at the moment. Is it weird? Yup! But I’m adjusting, and you can too.

When it comes to eating habits, getting back to the basics is the key to success. Planning meals, cooking more at home vs ordering in, and being mindful of hunger and fullness are positive first steps. Perfection definitely isn’t the goal here. It’s all about supporting our long term health goals even when the going gets tough. Limiting things like alcohol is also going to help us be healthier in the long run, since too much booze can negatively impact our mental health and physical health. No more than a drink per day, k?

The Bottom Line

So, should you be worried about gaining the “Quarantine 15” during this pandemic?

Worried? No. Life is messy, and there’s plenty to worry about at the moment without tacking a rising number on the scale onto our pile. To be totally honest, I’m not a big fan of living by the scale at any point in time. My approach instead is to think about what behaviors and routines we can incorporate into our lives that will make us healthier, regardless of our weight. But, taking the time to evaluate your coping mechanisms during this stressful time and maybe finding some health-promoting ways of dealing with stress or anxiety is almost never a bad idea.

If not being able to keep up with your usual healthy routine is what’s actually causing you a lot of stress it is definitely worthwhile to explore those feelings and maybe try to find a little peace with an adjusted routine for right now. We’re each living different stories during this pandemic so finding things that make YOU feel better is what really matters most. First and foremost be kind to yourself, and remember that this won’t last forever. Promise.

Need more tips for working out at home? Check out my article on ways to make your own homemade weights, and head on over to my IG TV series for some body weight workout tutorials!

If you’re really struggling right now and are looking for resources to help you cope, please check out Anxiety Canada.

If substance use is an issue for you during this time, please visit The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.

Do you want to learn how to optimize your athletic performance with simple, personalized nutrition strategies? Click here to get all the details for my one on one nutrition coaching programs, and Apply for a spot! 

About the Author: Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer who specializes in helping athletes reach their peak potential with nutrition.