Health Care

We Must Escape the COVID-Obesity Trap

Joggers run at the Volkspark Friedrichshain in Berlin, Germany, March 2, 2021. (Annegret Hilse/Reuters)
The amount of weight Americans have gained on lockdown is worrying. It’s time to get back outside.

More than a year after the coronavirus came to the United States, and governments across the world instituted measures ostensibly to limit its spread, there remains much we don’t know about the disease. And if the Chinese Communist Party gets its way, there is much that we will never know for sure (despite strong evidence) about its origin. But even now, as this country innovates its way out of the problem with remarkable vaccines, we don’t fully understand how the virus spreads, why it hits some places and people worse than others, and how effective (if at all) certain mitigation measures are.

Recently, however, two aspects of the coronavirus era have become clearer. Both of them concern weight, and both suggest that one of the key ways our society reacted was an obvious mistake — and one that should be corrected.

The first should come as no surprise: During the past year or so, many people have gained more weight than they would like. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 61 percent of U.S. adults reported unwanted weight change since the beginning of the pandemic. To be clear, some of this was undesired weight loss. But 42 percent of survey respondents indicated undesired weight gain. Ominously, the number was even higher for younger generations: nearly half of Millennials, and slightly over half of Generation Z. The survey reports some eye-popping numbers, not just in overall percentages but also in average weight gain for those who reported having gained it (29 pounds overall, 28 pounds for Gen Z, and a whopping 41 pounds for Millennials). It’s worth taking these results with a grain of salt (better here than on your next meal). But they still almost certainly capture a real trend. And it’s no mystery why this might have happened. Since last March, people have been encouraged to remain in their homes, and opportunities for fitness and recreation have diminished, all while external stress has increased. These factors have had real implications for the physical health of many.

The second, very-much related aspect of the coronavirus era that has become clearer of late should also come as no surprise: Being overweight makes the coronavirus worse. According to a March report by the World Obesity Federation:

In countries where less than half the adult population is classified as overweight . . . the likelihood of death from COVID-19 is a small fraction — around one tenth — of the level seen in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.

The report adds that “of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February 2021, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.” There may be other factors at play; air-conditioning, climate, time spent indoors, etc. But in a survey of its own, also in March, our own CDC found that, in the United States, more than half of coronavirus patients in hospitals were medically obese, and an additional 28 percent were overweight. These findings could resolve an essential quandary concerning coronavirus spread and intensity, explaining why some countries and other regions with inferior medical systems or starkly differing coronavirus-mitigation strategies have fared far better than those with apparently superior systems or strategies. It may be that the preexisting health of a population has more to do with how that population deals with the coronavirus than almost anything else, because, generally speaking, a person who is healthy and fit is better-equipped than someone who is neither to deal with the coronavirus. As U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, who had a particularly nasty bout of coronavirus, bluntly put it after he recovered: “I was too fat.”

The belated confirmation of these two nearly self-evident observations ought to embarrass those who pushed, and continue to push, a curtailment of physical activity, both indoors and out, as a coronavirus-mitigation measure. Gyms were one of the first victims of coronavirus lockdowns, a perhaps-forgivable step this time last year, when we knew even less about the disease than we do now. Less forgivable, even at the time, was a general public-health messaging campaign discouraging even outdoor recreation. It was almost exactly a year ago that local governments across the country began removing basketball hoops from outdoor courts to prevent people from playing, that a California paddleboarder, alone in the ocean save for the creatures of the deep, was arrested for ignoring COVID-induced beach closures, and that a man was arrested in Colorado for playing catch in a virtually empty park with his daughter. I was perhaps more tolerant of aggressive lockdown measures early on than I should have been. But even at the time, such reactions seemed excessive to me, particularly when I saw caution tape wrapped around a playground in the town where I spent the first few months of the coronavirus era.

These were just a few of the most ridiculous examples of people at the local level accepting cues from the top that the outside world was dangerous, and that it was best just to hole up inside and subsist on Netflix and GrubHub until it was safe. But, generally speaking, people got the message. The result is that America has become unhealthier and less physically capable during the pandemic than it was before. And it was no spring chicken to begin with: According to the CDC, 42 percent of the country was considered medically obese as of 2018. The vicious cycle doesn’t stop, either, with lockdowns encouraging obesity and obesity exacerbating the effects of the virus. In many jurisdictions, being above a certain weight enables one to get the coronavirus vaccine sooner, creating a perverse incentive to remain unfit. All this raises another troubling question for the post-COVID era: Will excessive government impositions on private life encourage an unhealthy lifestyle that long outlasts the pandemic itself?

Yet it’s not too late to learn lessons from our errors — foremost, that personal physical health is still important. Though I am a runner, I do not point this out to gloat, to imply that I take care of myself perfectly, or to partake in what a Guardian columnist ludicrously calls “the atmosphere of glee around the link to obesity.” I simply believe that, to the extent we are able, we should take care of our bodies, ideally to avoid ailments under our control, and to strengthen them against those we cannot.

Meanwhile, public-health messaging and protocols that discourage physical activity should be, if not ejected outright, severely dialed back. Fortunately, gyms seem to be reopening (though many of them already have been forced to close — another perverse outcome). But venues for outdoor recreation should never have been fully shuttered in the first place, and we should begin returning to organized forms of it, such as races (and not just because I personally miss them). Outdoor transmission of the coronavirus is extremely rare. So we need to stop acting like the outside world is a dangerous place. This will be a fight, as many public-health bureaucrats find it easier to order people around than to liberate them to care for themselves. But the ultimate rebuttal to nanny-staters hectoring people about personal health is to prove to them through our actions that they are not needed.

One hopes that we can emerge from the past year with a heightened appreciation for the benefits of physical activity, perhaps out of defiant opposition to the impositions we have faced. That has certainly been the case with me, as running nearly every day — with some exceptions — has been an essential part of my lockdown life. That’s not for everyone, granted. To be honest, I’m something of a nutjob. But without regular physical activity in my life, I would have become even more of one. Just do something. The pandemic-era virtues of physical activity are obvious now, even as many coronavirus mysteries remain.


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