I learned a concerning fact during a pre-Thanksgiving visit I had with Espyr’s fine team of professional health coaches. This team of health and fitness experts provide guidance, support, and accountability for employees of organizations that value the health and fitness of their workers. Groups like the US Coast Guard, the US Customs and Border Protection agency, and numerous transportation industry clients. The coaches informed me that an unanticipated consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a national weight gain. And that for those who are diagnosed with COVID-19, this weigh gain can slow their recovery, contribute to complications, and generally increase their risk of death from the disease. This weight gain has occurred in an America that was already overweight. On average that additional pandemic weight gain has been 16 pounds. They pointed out surveys that have said that around ¾ of Americans gained weight during the pandemic and many were trying to shed that weight just as the holiday feasting season arrived. A big challenge.
We all know that overweight people are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, coronary diseases, sleep problems, diabetes’s and may other negative health consequences. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the US CDC has repeatedly warned us that America’s obesity rate (defined as a Body Mass index of 30 or more) was increasing- 42% pre-pandemic. And that the annual medical cost for obese people is $1,429 higher than nonobese people. That equates to hundreds of billions of dollars of healthcare costs associated with obesity. And that this health condition like many others is preventable and is directly related to modifiable human behaviors. Employers, taxpayers, and consumers pay this enormous financial bill, while people pay with suffering and early death. So, the additional pandemic weight gain became a type of “surge upon the surge” to humbly borrow a phrase from Dr. Fauci.
It’s not surprising that Americans have gained weight in 2020. The pandemic has created a perfect combination of factors to create weight gain. They include reduced access to the many routine ways we comfort or care ourselves. Such as working out in fitness centers, socialization with friends and family, visiting restaurants and bars sports, viewing live entertainment and sporting events and many other formerly routine activities. At the same it’s made eating – and often eating not so healthy foods- an easily accessible way to provide gratification, reward, and comfort.
Speaking this dynamic in human behavior, did anyone else notice that more people started holiday decorating early this year? As in well before Thanksgiving? Many people did according to my unscientific, socially distanced survey around metro Atlanta. This early decorating was not because of holiday season creep. Like overeating, it was another consequence of pandemic psychology. Early decorating helped hasten the fulfillment of the wish of getting to a normal holiday season- at least in appearance. It also gave people a sense of control and certainty in an unusual, uncontrollable, anxiety-filled environment that is the year 2020. By the way, next up in that pandemic psychology is likely a robust holiday sales season as pandemic weary consumers splurge on themselves and others as a deserving reward for surviving a tortuous 2020.
Back to weight gain. The holiday season is a very challenging time to lose those extra pounds. Many people are finding that out this week. Undoubtably health coaches will be needed and helpful after the holidays when many people will get serious about shedding the pandemic + holiday weight gains.
For employers, there is an occupational aspect to all of this that calls for leadership among the business community. This is especially true for employers of workers who must achieve and maintain fitness standards to keep their jobs. Its concern beyond just the human suffering and the healthcare costs- it’s a concern about the retention of good employees. For example, in the transportation industry the pandemic brought on a federal moratorium of the US Department of Transportation medical examinations that ensure professional drivers of tractor-trailers and buses are healthy enough to be safe on the highways. That moratorium in the US is not continuing in 2021. Professional drivers- even in the best of times- are chronically exposed to dangerously high levels of stress during their often 11 hours of driving each day. They manage and master a sedentary job with limited exercise, poor opportunities for restorative sleep and rest, constant loneliness and restricted social supports, and rest-stops full of unhealthy food choices. Additional weight gains of even a few pounds during the pandemic can mean they don’t pass this medical exam. Then they lose their job, their family’s economic security is imperiled, and their employer loses a safe driver in an industry with a chronic driver shortage. Similar risks exist in law enforcement settings. All this make right now a good time for any employer to examine resources they can offer employees to help them get fitter. And then make employees aware of these resources. Experts tell us that even a small change in weight can have positive health consequences.