Katie Vick, Carleton University Student
A common concern expressed by many people throughout the pandemic has been the fear of weight gain from being cooped up inside. Gyms are closed, banana bread recipes are trending, and the weight gain of the coined ‘Quarantine 15’ is on folks’ minds (1,2). Recent research reports negative changes in diet, exercise, and body image worldwide since the pandemic began (3,4,5,6). While one might expect body image comparisons to dissipate with social distancing, this has not been the case. To the contrary, these unprecedented times have forged new opportunities for body image concerns to creep into our consciousness - perhaps in more pervasive ways than before.
Up to 80% of people report spending more time on social media during the pandemic, and this had no doubt been helpful to connect people during isolation,. However, there has been a concurrent shift in the tone of social media content. On the one hand, there is a greater frequency of posts about exercise and diet, and a prevalence of blatantly weight-stigmatizing and fat-phobic body image memes and comparisons, and so it is no surprise that body image issues are rising (7,8). On the other hand, the increased exposure to unrealistic presentations of happiness, accomplishment and appearance can also be harmful. These idealistic posts can prompt social comparisons that are associated with poor self-esteem. I began to notice myself making these comparisons during my morning scroll: Everyone was exercising and eating well… Was I supposed to make my banana bread and eat it too? From what I could tell, everyone on Instagram had their quarantine routine together except for me.
Influencers are not only individual sources posting about personal weight-gain concerns. Some nations, such as England, have made it a part of their public health strategy to promote healthy eating and exercise routines throughout lockdown. While well-intentioned, these posts can be harmful to people vulnerable to body image concerns (7,9). When even the government is telling you to do more despite doing everything that you can to just stay sane (which, for some of us, means to avoid compulsively worrying about the number on the scale), it is easy to feel like you aren’t doing enough to be a health goddess.
One study found that video conferencing also affected body satisfaction. Many workplaces have been relying on video conferencing tools during social distancing. We are forced to look at ourselves through others' eyes during video calls much more than we otherwise would. I don’t know about you but having a virtual mirror for three hours of my day is less than ideal, especially when my girlfriends always seem to have their hair and makeup on point in every. single. zoom. call.
We usually see our faces directly beside others in the meeting, creating opportunities for direct comparisons (often with many people at once) and self-criticism. Women’s tendency to pay more attention to appearance means that they might be engaging in these comparisons more often, contributing to greater zoom fatigue amongst women compared to men (10). In response, some people have started to use filters to improve their appearance. Using filters can be detrimental by creating unachievable beauty standards, intensifying the problem (11,12).
Women have generally reported poorer mental health than men during the pandemic, and this effect exists with body dissatisfaction (13,9). Women reported being more bothered than men by changes in appetite in response to lockdown stress. This might be because women are exposed to more weight-stigmatizing social media messaging.
Women also tend to engage in more 'fat talk' or discussions about their pandemic-related weight concerns. I find this particularly interesting with my coworkers, as I have never seen many of their faces due to masking procedures; we have these conversations without even knowing what the other person looks like!
Experts say that these effects are part of our diet culture (1,2). While the memes might make us feel connected or lift our spirits, they also reinforce the idea of 'good' and 'bad' foods, body shapes and behaviours. The science is clear that weight gain, especially during times of stress (e.g., a global pandemic?!?!) is very complicated. However, social media posts about ‘thinspo,' fad diets, and exercise to avoid lockdown-related weight gain often associate extra pounds with being lazy or unmotivated. This false information can be very stressful.
Some people are noticing the return or escalation of unhealthy thoughts and behaviours (9,14,15). Research has found that relationships with food have become more negative throughout the lockdowns, with people restricting and bingeing more than they did pre-pandemic (7,5,6). Some people have reported anxiety about being unable to exercise or to buy guilt-free foods during gym closures and food scarcity (7,6). Due to the unpredictability of lockdowns, for many, what they eat is a form of control (16). With social distancing, there is also little accountability. Friends have confided to me that a ‘lack of supervision’ enabled them to restart unhealthy patterns. Fortunately, some are reaching out, with professionals who were interviewed in Calgary reporting an increased demand for eating disorder supports.
In conclusion, the isolation and stress experienced during the COVID-19 lockdowns are hurting our relationships with food and bodies as we spend more time alone and in the digital sphere. We need to continue to pay attention to our loved ones' wellbeing, especially those are predisposed to body image issues, or who have a history of disordered eating. We need to change how we respond to ourselves and others. Instead of validating a friend’s weight concerns, challenge them to be critical of diet culture, identify ways that their bodies feel strong, and acknowledge that their body is doing what it can to keep them healthy and functional in a challenging time.
Pandemic Pets aims to understand how our relationships with our pets have evolved over the course of the pandemic, and how they might change after the pandemic. Currently, we are looking for participants to help us to understand this process.
You will be asked to complete an online survey now, and after the pandemic (likely fall of 2021 or winter of 2022, pending health restrictions). For your time you will be compensated by either an Amazon, or other ethical shopping site e-gift card of $5.00 CAN, or a donation of equal value to an animal shelter, for completing each survey. Your participation at each time point is entirely voluntary, and you may withdraw at any time. Each survey takes approximately 25-30 minutes, and your responses will be confidential.
To be eligible, you must be 18 or older, own a cat or dog, living in Canada or the U.S., and fluent in English. There are no physical risks in this study but you may experience mild discomfort when responding to questions on stress, feelings of loneliness, or mood.
If you are interested, please go to: https://carletonu.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_7WID0smvpkCxHw2 or email Sarah Kirkpatrick-Wahl at email@example.com or Kiri Sidhu at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also contact Dr. Kim Matheson at email@example.com
The ethics for this project have been approved by the Research Ethics Board at Carleton University (Clearance #115831). If you have any ethical concerns about this study, please contact the Carleton University Research Ethics Board-B by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Zoë Williams, Carleton University Student-Athlete
I tie up my running shoes and head out the door. Gravel crunches underfoot. A song by Taylor Swift plays through my earbuds. Wind brushes against my face as I run. I breathe deeply and look around, enjoying the outdoors on this fresh and sunny spring day.
Exercise. What comes to mind when you think of the word? With gyms closed and physical distancing rules in place I’d bet your definition has changed and that your daily physical activity levels have changed too. Moving from school or the office to working from home has meant that walking to work, class, or the coffee shop, has been replaced with walking downstairs, to the home office (if you’re lucky enough to not be working in your bedroom!), and into the kitchen. Research findings suggest that COVID-19 has changed our exercise and activity patterns, with some people exercising more, others less, and a worldwide study reporting a decrease in daily step counts that corresponded with the first wave of the pandemic (1). A large survey in the UK also reports that fewer people are staying active in the second lockdown. As we move in and out of various stages of lockdown across the country, Canadians may also be struggling with the motivation to stay active. Yet, exercise may actually be one of the best things a person can be doing for their immune system in the midst of a global pandemic!
Hippocrates, a Greek physician who’s considered the father of medicine, is quoted to have said “walking is man’s best medicine”. Based on the evidence, he may have been onto something. Our immune system is comprised of a large array of cells and molecules (check out this video for an immune system refresher) and research findings indicate that moderate intensity exercise can boost our immune system. One of the ways that exercise does this is by increasing the surveillance of our immune cells. When we exercise, our immune cells become mobilized, moving into our bloodstream and then out into tissues where “enemies”, like viruses and bacteria, are more likely to be present (2). If our immune system is our army, you can think of exercise as a signal – moving our army from its barracks and out into the field, telling it to be on high alert for enemies. This means that when we exercise our immune system may be more prepared to detect and respond to potential enemies that enter our body. Although no research has yet examined the effect of exercise on resistance to or severity of COVID-19, studies have reported that exercise can reduce the risk, duration, and symptom intensity of other viral infections. Exercise has also been shown to improve response to vaccinations in older adults by increasing the vaccination effect and reducing side effects (3).
However, in these pandemic times we’re not just facing a virus, but many people are also facing confinement and isolation that comes with lockdowns and quarantines. How may exercise interact with that and the immune system? A recent study examining the effects of exercise on astronaut immune health gives us a look at the interaction between exercise, the immune system, and the stress of isolation. Astronauts tend to experience a weakened immune system during space travel, which is thought to be connected to the stress that comes with isolation and confinement. Researchers found that lower cardiorespiratory fitness during space travel was associated with a weakened immune system, but higher levels of fitness were shown to be protective against this weakening. Although most of us are not astronauts, we are facing increased levels of confinement and isolation and this study shows us that exercise may allow our immune system to cope with the added stress (for more information on stress and exercise, check out this blog!).
You may be wondering what types of exercise we should do for these immune boosting effects. More research needs to be done before we know the specifics, but if you’re an elite athlete or a lover of multi-hour high intense exercise then I recommend you check out this podcast. For most of us, simply getting up and moving at a moderate intensity is key. Moderate intensity exercise can be defined as exercise at 60% of heart rate reserve (which is 65-75% of one’s max heart rate) for a max of 60 min. For example, a 30-60 min. brisk walk. The World Health Organization recommends that adults reduce sedentary time, engage in 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week and strength training activities at least twice a week, but that this can be adjusted based on fitness level. It may look like a lot, but this is only 20-30 min. of exercise a day! However, if you haven’t exercised before, check out these articles, and make sure to build into it; rapid increases in exercise have been reported to increase the risk of injury (4), but starting at a low intensity and gradually building from there can prevent exercise related injuries, and doing a variety of different types of physical activity may also reduce injury risk (5). For those of us in Ottawa, we are lucky to have the Rideau Canal for skating and a wonderful network of cross country ski, biking, and hiking trails to explore!
So, lace up your shoes, buckle up your ski boots, roll out your yoga mat, and get moving! Your immune system will thank you.
By Zoë Williams, 4th year Neuroscience and Mental Health Student
We’ve all heard the saying, but how accurate is it? This informative video by Zoë Williams explores how the foods we eat can influence our brain and delves into the mechanics of how diet could impact mood and cognition, particularly highlighting the important role of our microbiota in this gut-brain axis.
Want to learn more?