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How to Deal with COVID-19 Weight Gain

Many of us have heard of the "Freshman 15," but what about the "Quarantine 19"—a term used to refer to the weight gain that many of us have experienced during the pandemic?

Indeed, according to a a poll of more than 1,000 WebMD readers, 54% of respondents said they've gained weight during the pandemic. Though a majority of them said that they've been cooking at home more often and ordering out less, they noted that they've also been snacking more and exercising less. And as many of us know, when the number of calories we ingest exceeds the number of calories we burn in a day, weight gain ensues.

And so, today's post is for those of you who have been feeling disheartened about any physical changes you've been experiencing and are interested in achieving balance again.

But first, a disclaimer...

The point of this post is NOT to say that weight gain is bad, and I'd like to say that from the bottom of my heart that I couldn't care less about what you look like as you read this. If you feel good in your skin right now, disregard this post. This one is for people who aren't feeling like their best selves right now and who are looking for some strategies and techniques that can help them out.

It's also important to remember that health is about so much more than our appearance. Even if you haven't gained any weight, per se, perhaps you've been moving a lot less or eating a lot more junk food. Physical stuff aside, our bodies require good nutrients and movement to thrive, so implementing healthier habits is important for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your appearance.

Okay, now that that's over with! Let's talk about how you can get back on track if you've fallen off the wagon during this pandemic.

  1. Be gracious with yourself.

Here's something I've been saying to a lot of my clients:

Imagine a beautiful green plant. And imagine that this plant needs certain qualities in its ecosystem to thrive: a particular temperature, a specific amount of rainfall, a certain amount of sun, etc.

Now imagine plucking this plant up from its lovely ecosystem and placing it into one that's completely different: there's not as much sun, it's cold, and it only rains a couple times a month. This plant has two options: die or adapt.

If it chooses the latter, it's going to look like a totally different plant. It might not look as lusciously green as it used to, it might start growing some random leaves out of its stem, or other strange mutations might occur (clearly I am not a botanist).

The point is this: you are the plant and you've been adapting for more than one year. You've gone from living in a world where you could see your friends, go to the gym, stroll through Chapter's for an hour, have little chats with co-workers between phone calls to not being able to rely on any of those things. Just like the plant that was plopped from one ecosystem to another, you're going to experience changes physically, emotionally, and mentally.

If your body isn't looking how it "normally does," if your energy levels aren't as high as they usually are, or if you're just feeling a little bit "off," remember it's because you've been forced to continually adapt to a new ecosystem every. single. day. And if you think about it, that's really friggen' incredible. So take a moment to thank your body, mind, and spirit for all of the things it has actually gotten through this past year.

2. Make a commitment to yourself.

Now that you've hopefully gained some perspective, it's time to actually make a commitment to yourself, which starts by taking a moment to be honest about what you're actually willing and unwilling to do right now.

So often I hear people tell me that they want to "lose weight" or "tone up" or whatever it is, yet when I ask them how motivated they are to change, they'll say only 20% of them actually cares to make this change. That is TOTALLY OKAY, but if this is the case, be realistic about the fact that your health might not a priority right now.

As you read this, ask yourself this question: "How willing am I to put in the hard work to make some changes to my physical and mental health right now?" If your desire for change is less than 50%, it might be more helpful to practice acceptance. Accept that right now you aren't happy with how you look but that you also have other priorities that will affect your ability to focus on this. If your desire for change is more than 50%, keep reading!

The point is, I think it's a lot more distressing when we fight reality and try to pretend we care about something that we, in fact, do not actually care about 🤷‍♀️.

3. Set small, achievable goals accordingly.

^ Slow and steady wins the race! 😂

The downfall for most people is setting outrageous goals. Your goal has to be specific, attainable, measurable, and time-bound to be effective. And during a pandemic, it also has to align with your current context.

If your current context only allows for at-home workouts, take this into account. If you haven't exercised in a long time, I'd recommend starting small so as to not discourage yourself. You might start with just doing a 10 minute walk two times a week. Or, you can try doing a 15 minute high-intensity-interval training workout two days a week. Whatever it is, make sure your goal meets the criteria mentioned above (specific, attainable, measurable, time-bound, context-specific).

I always encourage people to err on the side of caution when it comes to goal-setting by choosing something even more bite-sized than you'd think. There's nothing worse than setting a huge goal, failing, and feeling more discouraged than when you started.

From there, I also invite you to find a way to actually track your progress. There are apps out their like Habit that can help or you can hold yourself accountable by sharing your goal with a friend, putting a huge 'X' on your calendar to signify the days that you stuck to your goal, or whatever works for you.

4. Differentiate between actual hunger and cravings.

The best tool I've learned to help people differentiate between actual hunger versus cravings/emotional eating is this: when you're genuinely hungry, you'll be happy eating anything. When your "hunger" is actually coming from a place of boredom, habit, or emotions, you'll crave a very specific thing. In other words, if it's Friday night and you happen to specifically be craving a Blizzard from Dairy Queen and nothing else, you're "hunger" is from a place of habit or emotion. If you're open to eating a number of different foods that are more substantive and nutritious, you're likely just straight up hungry.

Another test is to walk through the HALT acronym: before you eat, this involves asking yourself: am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? (I also ask myself if I'm bored.) If the answer to any of those questions is "yes," it's worth exploring if perhaps it's an emotion that needs tending to rather than an actual hunger cue.

5. Set helpful limits.

I frequently encourage people to stay away from all-or-nothing thinking as much as possible as it sets us up for failure more often than not. The alternative is to take a harm reduction approach, which is about accepting that none of us eat perfectly all the time or work out every day. Further, it's about making small changes so that we don't experience as many negative consequences. (Usually the phrase 'harm reduction approach' is applied to drug use, but I think it fits here well nonetheless.)

Ask yourself what limits would be helpful to set so that you're "allowed" to engage in the behaviour but in a smarter way. This might look like:

  • Only ordering in one day a week

  • Only eating one junk food item a night rather than having five different junk foods in one evening

  • Having one glass of wine a night rather than five

  • Putting only one shot of alcohol in your cocktail rather than two

The possibilities are endless; the important thing is just to figure out what a harm reduction approach might look like in your situation specifically.

6. Use psychology-based behaviour change strategies.

Behaviour change strategies usually revolve around adding positive reinforcement or punishment to target behaviours*. A positive reinforcer is something that rewards a behaviour. If you allow yourself to have a really luxurious bath after doing a hard workout, that's an example of a positive reinforcement because you're rewarding yourself for completing the target behaviour (doing a hard workout).

Punishment, as the name suggests, involves removing something because you didn't engage in the target behaviour. So, you may disallow yourself from watching an episode of your favourite Netflix series because you did not meet your movement goal for the day.

The key here is to get creative and experiment!

7. Find something you like.

I've learned from personal experience that the key to sticking to any sort of new regimen is to find something you like. So often I think we over-analyze how "effective" our workouts are to the point where we just don't do them at all. We think that unless we're doing high-intensity interval training or super hardcore, one-hour weight training sessions that we "aren't doing anything." But regardless of what type of exercise you choose, any movement is better than no movement at all.

You can also click here to check out my other blog about how I stay motivated to work out.

8. Increase your step count in sneaky ways.

It's amazing to consider how much our steps added up when we were able to leave the house more frequently. Rushing to the GO station, walking to the bathroom at work, going to and from our colleagues' offices to ask them about something, walking to the lunch room... all of those things add up more than we realize!

You can try being creative with how you get more steps into your day. For example, you might set a silly goal of, "Every time I get an email from [insert colleagues' name], I'm going to walk to the other side of the apartment and back." You can also set alarms on your phone that remind you to do a quick walk from your top floor to your basement if you happen to live in a house. Put your chargers in different rooms so you have to walk around to get them or buy a standing desk converter. Whatever it is, they say that "sitting is the new smoking," so find some clever ways to get more steps in!

The Bottom Line

If anyone is reading this feeling discouraged, please know that you are not alone. I can verify that so many of the people with whom I work have been struggling with the return of addictive beahviours, emotional eating, weight gain, and more during this time. And it's because we're all going through A LOT! I've been continually reminding people to try their best to not bring their pre-2020 expectations of themselves to 2021 because that's simply cruel. We are all just doing our best right now.

That said, the good news is that there are a number of things you can control, and that includes: finding a form of exercise or movement you truly enjoy, setting small, bite-sized goals for yourself, taking a harm reduction approach to eating- and drinking-related behaviours, and more.

If you have any tips that have helped YOU get through this pandemic, share them in the comments below!


If you or someone you know is struggling right now, please do not hesitate to contact us to inquire about individual or online psychotherapy in Markham and Vaughan.

*FYI: the terminology associated with behaviour change principles is actually way more complicated than this. There are positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers and positive punishments and negative punishments—and so many more in between—but for the sake of simplicity, I just described some concepts in layman's terms, although the terminology might not be "textbook accurate" according to a behavioural psychologist.


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