- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2020

Online jokes about the “quarantine 15” belie the challenges faced by people with obesity amid shutdowns of fitness centers and stay-at-home orders in the coronavirus pandemic, physicians and public health experts say.

Gaining more weight during pandemic protocols only increases difficulties for those trying to establish healthy habits in eating, exercise and weight control, they say.

Researchers found that 70% of survey participants with obesity reported more difficulty achieving weight loss goals, 61% reported more stress eating, 50% reported more food stockpiling, 48% reported exercising less and 56% reported a decrease in exercise intensity, according to a study published this month.

“Those numbers were striking when you’re seeing the majority of your sample reporting these deleterious behaviors, there’s cause for concern for sure. These aren’t typical statistics you see,” said Sarah Messiah, a study author and a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health who works with people who are obese.

“A lot of patients will tell you it’s really easy to fall back into old habits when you don’t have access to your gym or fitness classes or maybe food services that you feel have been helping you get back to a healthier weight,” Ms. Messiah said.

“I’ve seen all the jokes with people in general about ‘COVID-15’ and things like that. That’s just the general population,” she said. “Think about the people who are really struggling and challenged on a daily basis with that and not having the resources available to support their successful weight loss just makes it worse.”

The study, featured in the Clinical Obesity journal, included 123 patients with obesity from an obesity medicine clinic and a bariatric surgery practice. The patients completed an online survey from April 15 to May 31 about their COVID-19 status and health behaviors during stay-at-home orders.

People who are obese often have other health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease and could be at higher risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Two of the survey participants had tested positive for the coronavirus while almost 15% of them had reported symptoms.

“In addition to people having bias [about obesity], now we have a virus that has bias. It doesn’t pick on people equally. So here we have a virus that picks on older people, people that are heavy, people that have high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Dr. Ethan Lazarus, president-elect of the Obesity Medicine Association. “So for those higher risk groups, the odds of having a really bad outcome are significantly higher than young healthy people.”

The survey found that 73% of respondents reported increased anxiety and 84% reported increased depression since stay-at-home orders began.

Stay-at-home orders also shut down elective medical procedures and clinical visits such as bariatric surgeries and trips to the endocrinologist, which Ms. Messiah said could worsen chronic conditions of people with obesity.

Dr. David Buchin, owner of Long Island Obesity Surgery, said he had an EMT staffer scheduled to undergo bariatric surgery on March 16. However, on March 14, Dr. Buchin was told he couldn’t perform the operation due to shutdown orders. The patient, who had a hard time during quarantine, struggled in managing his weight and gained 10 to 15 pounds.

The patient recently underwent bariatric surgery as procedures at the obesity surgery clinic resumed this month.

“With all the gyms being closed, people are not active. People have direct access to their refrigerators and pantries all day long whereas if they were at work they would not have direct access to their pantries and refrigerators. So, that’s a big problem,” said Dr. Buchin, also commenting on the high levels of anxiety in the earlier days of the pandemic. “There were a lot of people that gained a lot of weight during that time, whether that person was obese or not. It affected everyone.”

Dr. Steven Heymsfield, past president of The Obesity Society and a professor at Louisiana State University, said diet drops down in priority when people are dealing with stressors such as losing a job or food insecurity.

Dr. Heymsfield expects an increase in nationwide obesity rates, which hover currently around 40%.

“I think you could very well see a spike in weight when they do the next survey,” he said. “Be aware, given the circumstances, that your risk of gaining weight is very significant If there was ever a time that motivated people to not gain weight or lose weight, it’s right now given the high risk of obesity with coronavirus.”

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