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Putting on the pounds during the pandemic a problem for some

Long Islanders in Deer Park talk about how the coronavirus has been affecting their weight. Some have gained, while others have lost. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Marc Riggins has been working at home since the coronavirus pandemic began, leading to more eating, less activity — and weight gain.

"You’re working from home and you take breaks all the time, and that’s when you start eating," said Riggins, 49, a Baldwin insurance claims adjuster who said he has gained 10 pounds since March.

Long Island doctors said that since the pandemic began, many more patients than usual have gained weight, and some physicians said they, too, have put on pounds. Enough extra pounds can mean a variety of health problems, including a heightened risk for contracting a more severe case of COVID-19, experts said.

Reasons behind the weight gain include easier access to food, higher alcohol use, less exercise and stress, doctors said.

"Forty percent of the adult population is considered obese, and if you throw on top of that the inactivity of being isolated at home, not going to the gym, not socializing with friends, it leads to increased anxiety and depression, and of ways of trying to comfort that, and what do people do? They eat," said Dr. Anthony Ardito, an internist with practices in Lake Success and Commack and vice president of the primary care service line for Catholic Health Services of Long Island.

More worries, less activity take toll

Debbie Rodriquez said she has gained 15 pounds because stress and "nothing to do" has led to more eating and alcohol consumption.

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"I’m worried about COVID," said Rodriquez, 55, as she waited in line recently outside the Adidas store at Tanger Outlets in Deer Park. "I’m worried about my family members, myself, my mother."

Rodriquez’s sister was hospitalized with COVID-19, other family members have contracted the virus, and her 89-year-old mother lives with her in Queens Village, she said.

Rodriquez stopped going to the gym when they were ordered shut in March, and did not return when they reopened in August, because she didn’t feel safe.

Ardito said exercising with others at the gym or elsewhere can provide motivation, and without that, many are exercising less.

LaKeisha Riggins, 49, of Baldwin, the wife of Marc Riggins, used to walk regularly with friends but stopped doing so once the pandemic began. She also goes out less often.

The lower activity led to weight gain that varied between 10 and 20 pounds, so a month ago, she took her treadmill out of storage, even though she prefers to exercise outside.

"I cannot afford to gain any more weight," she said.

There has been limited research on what doctors anecdotally agree is widespread weight gain. An article published in May in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice found that of 1,200 people surveyed via Facebook, 22% had gained 5 to 10 pounds since the beginning of the pandemic.

A WebMD survey of 1,012 U.S. readers released in May found that 47% of women and 22% of men said they’d gained weight, with 72% listing lack of exercise as a reason, 70% citing stress eating and 59% listing both as factors.

Dr. Marc Schechter, a Plainview doctor and chief of family medicine at ProHEALTH, which has primary care and urgent care centers on Long Island and in New York City, said his 15-pound weight gain started during the spring COVID-19 surge when he was working long hours at urgent-care centers, and ProHEALTH, local restaurants and patients donated food in gratitude.

"There was food all day long, everywhere you turned," he said. "You’re constantly grabbing something in between patients. You’re not sitting down and having a standard meal."

Schechter said some of his patients also have been eating more, and many are less active.

A lot used to take the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan, and for "many of my patients, their main exercise was walking from Penn Station to their office," sometimes 20 or more blocks, he said. "That was gone."

Nearly 24% of Americans worked from home because of COVID-19 in December, down from more than 35% in May, when economic restrictions were more stringent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A Gallup Poll found that in April, 69% of respondents were always or sometimes working from home because of the pandemic. In 2017, only 3% of full-time American employees primarily worked from home, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis analysis of U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Commuting time becomes exercise time

Not everyone is gaining weight during the pandemic. Some are losing pounds because not commuting to work leaves them more time to exercise, and they don’t go out for unhealthy food near their workplaces, said Dr. Aurora Pryor, a surgeon with Stony Brook Medicine and director of its bariatric and metabolic weight-loss center.

Lily Gusev, 39, of Rockville Centre, said she was alarmed when she gained 10 pounds after she began working from home. So, without her three-hour round-trip commute, she began using a home elliptical machine more often and lost the additional weight and 5 more pounds.

Pryor said many of her patients have "put on significant weight during COVID." She also is seeing new patients who "are definitely expressing they’re nervous about COVID, and they’re coming in to lose weight."

They realize that obesity increases their risk of getting severe cases of COVID-19 if they were to contract the coronavirus, Pryor said.

Obesity is linked to diabetes and other diseases that also increase the COVID-19 risk, and it's bad for overall health, she said.

Food is a constant temptation if you’re spending more time at home, so Pryor recommends stocking your kitchen with healthy foods. High-risk people are "probably smart" to avoid gyms, so she advises taking walks, buying a treadmill or other exercise equipment, and if you’re working from home, periodically getting up to move around.

"The less activity you do, the more at risk you are," she said.

Exercise during the pandemic

If you're not as active as you were pre-COVID-19 and are wary of going to the gym, experts have some exercise tips.

  • Go for outdoor walks, as long as you're not in a crowd. Or walk inside your home.
  • Buy an exercise bike, treadmill or other equipment.
  • Do jumping jacks, situps, pushups, yoga and other exercises at home.
  • Follow workouts on YouTube or apps. Many are free.
  • Form a video workout group with friends or work colleagues to keep motivated.
  • If you're working from home, get up and move around for a few minutes every hour.

SOURCES: Penn Medicine, Dr. Aurora Pryor

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