COVID-19

Packing on the pandemic pounds

Chicago Theater
Wet streets in the theater district

On one of our weekend getaways in Chicago, my wife and I got caught in a sudden heavy rain and were soaked through. We had tickets to the theater for that evening but no suitable dry clothes to wear. Still dripping, we popped into the Old Navy right there in the theater district and bought clothes that would do. They had chinos on a very good sale, and I ended up buying four pair. I chose the slim fit. They were a bit snug, but it was a good look on me.

I started putting on weight almost immediately when I started working from home in March. For a long time I’d hovered around 180 pounds on my six foot frame. It’s a healthy weight, but slightly heavier than I like. I look and feel better at 175 pounds, but in middle age I find that weight harder and harder to maintain. Thanks to pandemic stress and other life stress, I was eating and drinking more. It doesn’t help that my refrigerator is five feet from my home desk. I’ve also been less active — it’s remarkable how much walking I do when I go to the office. I felt my pants becoming tight, uncomfortably so.

In April I started using a calorie tracker to help me moderate my intake. It did help me overeat less, but I still struggled to hit my calorie targets. This is one reason I took so many walks and bike rides all summer, but as you can see in the chart below, they didn’t help. I slowly and steadily put on weight anyway. My weight gain only accelerated after the bike rides ended with the cold weather in October. Then I decided to let my guard down and enjoy as much holiday food as I wanted. As the weather grew even colder, I took fewer and fewer walks. Unsurprisingly, I quickly found myself pushing 190 pounds. Most of my slacks and jeans are now far too tight to wear, especially those slim-fit chinos.

Gaining weight during the pandemic

Historically, whenever I’ve eaten less and moved more I’ve easily shed pounds. A moderate reduction in calorie intake and a moderate increase in exercise would normally lead me back to about 180 pounds within a few months.

But there’s a possible monkey wrench in these works. In the last couple years I’ve developed Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid disorder. As I understand it, my immune system is attacking my thyroid, leading to its inflammation. I’ve had an underactive thyroid for 20 years, although past tests for Hashimoto’s always came back negative. I’ve taken the usual medication all these years, and it worked great for a long time. My labs show thyroid hormone levels within the acceptable range. Thyroid issues can be a culprit in weight gain — also in other symptoms I’m experiencing, including sluggishness and hair loss. But heavy stress, such as pandemic stress, can also explain all of these symptoms. So I’m not sure what the real root cause is.

My doctor and I have tried some dietary changes and a couple supplements aimed at reducing inflammation to see if they might reverse the Hashimoto’s. They helped a little. Now we’re trying a medication off label that has been known to help autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s. We’ll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, I’m doubling down on limiting how much I eat and drink, and stepping up my steps outside the house. I’m forcing myself to walk two miles each weekday before I start work, cold weather be damned. I will look for another chance to walk two miles in each day, at lunch if I can, and after work if I must. If I can get back to 185 pounds, where my pants all fit, I’ll be happy enough until I’m able to go back to the office and resume my pre-pandemic level of natural activity.

But today I ordered a few new pairs of chinos — same waist size, just in a roomier cut. They ought to be not uncomfortable at my current weight. I think I’m done with snug fits. Those slim-fit chinos are in our box of stuff to donate. It’s too bad, because those chinos had such a fun memory attached to them!

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49 thoughts on “Packing on the pandemic pounds

  1. That sounds very familiar, right down to the specific numbers, except for the thyroid issues. I’m just too sedentary. My employer offered a one-time WFH stipend so I used it to buy a cushioned mat. Hopefully this prompts me to use my standing desk more, at least until the weather stops being too gross for going outside.

    • I’ve never been athletic, and there are few physical activities I truly enjoy. So I’ve always struggled to stay active – I’m just grateful that for most of my life I’ve had an excellent metabolism and have always been able to stay at a healthy weight. Until now.

  2. DougD says:

    Oh dear, just checked now and I’m 191, heaviest I’ve ever been. At 6’1″ that’s not terrible, but when I was 15 I was this tall and weighed 120…
    Sorry about your thyroid, that is indeed a perplexing gland for a lot of people. My problem is just being constantly close to the fridge.
    And it’s snowing now. And I really should go outside for a walk. Brrrr.

    • I feel you — when I was 15 I was 5’11” and 140 pounds. A good strong wind would blow me away! Being this close to my fridge is part of my problem as well.

  3. Schmitt says:

    It’s an expensive fix, but: VR goggles. They are so much fun and you don’t have to go outside. A few rounds of Beat Saber, Oh Shape and Audio Trip and I have done more cardio than in ten years put together. And I never thought I would buy such a thing much less love them.

    • Our son has a pair. I’ve stayed away. I remember doing VR some years ago with my oldest and finding myself disoriented and feeling like tossing cookies! But he sure does work up a sweat. I think he has Beat Saber.

      • Schmitt says:

        I had expected that myself and was pleasantly surprised at how well-done it was. One game had something going on that left me feeling off-kilter but other than avoiding that one it’s been fine.

  4. If only I were 190 pounds!

    I started a diet last year but lockdown kinda knocked it in the head (or I subconciously used it as an excuse to stop dieting). My aim is to drop a couple of stone / 28lbs which I know I can do as I’ve done it before. It still puts me over what a basic BMI for my height suggests but last time I did this I lost enough weight to get me within the BMI healthy level and I looked really gaunt.

    I’m hoping a combination of diet and my Couch to 5K will get me to a good place. The bonus is that I have lots of clothes in my wardrobe that don’t currently fit, so it will be like getting a bunch of new stuff when it fits again.

    Hope your meds help and you manage to keep to your 2-mile goal.

    • I wrote this with some hesitation because I know my 10-pound gain ain’t nothing compared to what others have experienced. And I’ve never had real trouble shedding unwanted weight; I’ve always had a good metabolism. But it does remain frustrating to not be able to wear my pants, and it’s a real experience I’m having during the pandemic, so here this post is.

      Interesting isn’t it how the BMI isn’t necessarily the gold standard? At my ideal weight I’m at about 24 on the BMI scale, one point below overweight. I can’t imagine weighing much less than that.

      Good luck with Couch to 5K!

  5. Same here I’ve gained the Covid-15, or fifteen+ in my case. My conditioning routine was first prohibited, then inconsistent, now nearly non-existent. Let’s see what happens in February.

    • We had a pandemic and the whole nation got fatter! Here’s hoping that as the weather gets better across most of the country (you in Hawaii excepted!) we will all be able to be more active.

  6. The battle of the bulge! We walk an average minimum of four and one half miles a day and often more and as such feel pretty good in our early seventies. I have learned however that most important to the weight equation thing is fuel intake. Controlling the quantity and quality of the fuel and daily motion have worked wonders for us. Having a camera tag along for the ride satisfies another itch and has provided much needed therapy given the circumstances. Thanks for the timely post and good luck on reaching your objectives.

    • 4.5 miles a day is pretty good! I’m trying for about four: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. I can’t wait until it’s warm enough to bike again, that’s my preferred way to exercise. I also can’t wait until its’ warm enough to bring my film cameras along again. They don’t like the cold!

  7. Nancy Stewart says:

    I have been dealing with the same thing for two or three years . Couldn’t figure why I kept gaining weight when I had always been able to eat anything. Doctor put me on one thyroid med two years ago … helped a little but not enough. So about a year ago he added a second one which seemed to bring everything pretty much back to normal. Except that I weigh more than I ever have and barely eat anything … and nothing seems to change. And I absolutely refuse to buy bigger pants, like my skinny husband tells me to !!!

    • That’s puzzling. If thyroid is the culprit behind weight gain, getting meds right usually sees the pounds fall off. I wonder if something else is up medically?

      When 180 became my new norm I finally decided to let my 33-inch-waist pants go and move to 34. I refuse to go to 35!!

  8. I don’t own a scale. I am only weighed by my PCP and my cardiologist. I use the fit of my jeans to keep track of my weight. (I’ve worn the same make, cut and size for 20+ years.) In the first few months after the lockdown began they went from just right to almost snug enough to go up a size. I made a conscious effort to watch the portion size of my meals and the jeans are back to just right. And last week at my quarterly checkup my PCP confirmed that my weight is back where we agreed was OK.

  9. I was able to lose 26 lbs last year. I moderately exercise 2 out of every 3 days and 5 days a week I eat from 10 AM to 6 PM. On the other 2 days I still do not eat in the evening. I also stopped eating meat but I still have lots of dairy.

    • That’s a remarkable weight loss! I’m happy you found something that works well for you.

      I have some tricky dietary issues, some foods that tie my guts in knots when I eat them, that would make it nearly impossible for me to get enough protein without meat. But that doesn’t mean my go-to side dishes have to be so starchy and/or fattening.

  10. tbm3fan says:

    The pandemic actually has not affected me. I still go into my office where people are spaced apart during my minimize 6 hours there. The office is long so I am walking back and forth during those four days. On Saturday I go down to the Hornet where it is common to climb 50-80 stories, up and down, in 8 hours plus walking the length of the hanger deck several times which my legs don’t appreciate. I am 6’1″ tall and have weighed 168-170lbs. for the last five decades and that includes 2020. A strong key is I have always watched what I eat and I make sure most everything I eat has a strong nutritional benefit. That means one small slice of New York Cheese Cake, infrequently, and I so love Cheese Cake.

    • Because I had a blast-furnace metabolism until I was 40, I didn’t build good habits early. My habits are not terrible, but at 53 I really can’t get away with the level of consumption I used to!

      • tbm3fan says:

        In the end it is self control. Great self control a little exercise will do. Poor self control needs tons of exercise. No self control means it is hopeless.

  11. Like Seatacphoto I’m trying basically the same thing and have for a few years; I didn’t know it at the time but it’s known as intermittent fasting. Basically you’re skipping one meal a day and eating everything within an 8hr period (usually for me 8-4 but I’ve been going 10-6 recently too, or trying to). I find that Summer tourist season and incredibly long hours with lots more stress involved it’s hard to keep it up and this season lasted pretty much all the way to New Year’s so it’s been hard to get back into, but I’m soldiering on. I find that even with little exercise in the Wintertime if I practice intermittent fasting I’ll lose weight, but I usually gain it back by the end of Summer. Last year was especially tough and I found that I’d gained a few over last year, probably between 5-10lbs. Gotta watch those calories! And exercise more. And all that stuff…

  12. Dani says:

    I’ve been wearing yoga pants since March. I’m quite positive my jeans that fit then won’t fit now. I last weighed myself before moving to our new house. Maybe 15+ lbs gained since March. I made a conscious effort to not pack the scale and left it behind.

    • I’ve made a deliberate choice to dress normally for work. Only diff is that I’m choosing sweaters, rugbys, and polos instead of shirts I have to iron. For me, dressing for work puts me in the work zone and helps me keep my head together! Unfortunately, that means no stretchy waistbands. :-(

      I feel you, sister; this all has been challenging and it’s been too easy to not exercise and give in to the fridge being RIGHT THERE.

  13. The struggle is real. The commute from my desk to the fridge is awfully short and I have an abundance of time to experiment with vegan baked goods. Sigh. I’m trying to get motivated but it’s hard to get started.

  14. Michael says:

    Maybe you should move your desk since the proximity to the fridge seems to be a recurring complaint (excuse). I’m in the frigid basement now wearing gloves as I type. :) I gained a few pounds with the holidays but have stayed pretty consistent this year even though I cheat a fair bit.

    Dani’s comment made me relive freshmen year when I wore shorts or sweats all the time and gained 15 pounds by Christmas! At least I have only gained a few more since then.

    • Nowhere else for the desk to go here, no basement anyway. But even if there were, the fridge is still lots closer than when I am in the office.

      I weighed something like 140 at this height when we met. A good stiff breeze could knock me over. By end of Freshman year I was at 165 and, frankly, I needed those pounds. I stayed there into my mid-late 20s when I started creeping up. I got to about 175 by age 40, which was still fine. I stayed more or less there until my late 40s, and since then I’ve had to work to stay at 180. I think my metabolism is just slowing down with age. I had a very good run for a very long time so I shouldn’t complain.

      • Michael says:

        My desk is just a plastic table. I did graduate from a 4′ to 6′ though.

        I had dropped to 137 after HS graduation because of jaw surgery (could eat only smoothies for 8 weeks) so I truly only gained about 7 pounds because of ARA. Free seconds and thirds can do that to a guy! Plus I liked it better than my mom’s cooking.

  15. Jim, sorry to hear about your Hashimoto’s disease. In 2018 I had my thyroid removed to treat my autoimmune hyperthyroidism and several eye surgeries in 2019 to treat graves eye disease (autoimmune). I also have autoimmune diabetes. It seems both of us have hyperactive immune systems. 🤷🏾‍♂️

    I put on 15lbs that I need to work off. I’m not motivated to get up and go out, but I know I have too. I may soon need bigger pants. 🤣

    • I’m wondering if I’ll end up needing my thyroid removed. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

      My thyroid troubles started 20 years ago during a period of extreme life stress. My Hashimoto’s came out during another. Hmmmmmmmmm.

  16. The thyroid is a tricky thing … when mine went wonky a dozen years ago, I went from 190 to 260!!! It took many years and different doctors to find the right medicine for me, I was down to 210 for the first half of the lockdowns … all of a sudden in August jumped up 220. Find a doctor who cares more about how you feel than numbers.

    • Yikes, that must have been hard to take! My thyroid was thankfully not hard to regulate, a little Synthroid and a little Cytomel and I’ve been good for years. My current doctor manages to how I feel so I’m fortunate.

  17. One thing that I’ve always maintained as I age is the simple goal of not gaining weight. I find that it is one of the easier things to stay in my control. When I enter middle age I hope to still be as conscious of it, as you are right now. Stay healthy!

    • When I was 22 I weighed 165. By my mid 30s it had crept up to 175. I held the line until about age 50, when I crept up to 180. My metabolism simply isn’t what it used to be. The diet and exercise I’d need to do to maintain 165 now — oy!

      But in my 20s and early 30s? I could eat anything I wanted in any quantity. It was wonderful.

      • Haha thanks for the reminder! Well I guess metabolism after all is not really something entirely in our control after all. I have noticed it too, my tummy is no longer as flat as it used to be and I don’t think it will go back unless I start to exercise somewhat rigorously. I find no joy in exercising except for walking. Not even trekking, just plain old walking and only because I get to carry cameras with me. Human bodies….

        • Right there with you: I hate to exercise for it’s own sake. With a purple passion. That’s why I walk and ride my bike; those don’t feel like exercise.

  18. Darts and Letters says:

    This was a remarkable thread of conversation following your essay, it’s insightful and in some cases reassuring to hear how different people have balanced their health with the restrictions on more normal daily life. I really appreciate everyone sharing. I hope you can keep your thyroid issue in check, Jim. I’m struggling a little bit right now to get further along, to reach a safer point of virus case rates so I can address particular health issues with doctors or physical therapists. I’m really nervous about going to certain appointments and i’m trying to balance the fear of risk with common sense. I just want to keep myself but most importantly my family, safe. it’s a huge job taking care of my boys right now, keeping them happy and coping with the strangeness of the times and it makes me very risk averse

    I’ve struggled a little in the eating department and have put some weight on, not a terrible amount but enough to make me squeamish. I’ve tried to not let it bother me, I just want to make it through these next 6-8 months before I get immunized and I’ll worry about the excess weight later. We try to walk at least three miles every day, the boys and i.

    • I love it when good threads happen. I hope I can get this thyroid issue handled too. I’d like my hair to stop falling out! I’ve been able to work with my GP via FaceTime. But I did have to go to the podiatrist a few times last fall to get a pesky foot issue handled, and I’m kind of staunch about semiannual dental cleanings and you can’t do those via teleconference.

      I work from home but the rest of my family work at their workplaces due to the nature of their jobs. So we have risk vectors here. I wish we didn’t.

  19. I missed this originally and am catching up on old emails. I can brag that I weigh the same as I did in high school. The asterisk is that I lost 50 pounds in law school and got as low as 145 on what was then 5’11” in height. I put it all back on, but it took 35 years to do it. Since then I’ve lived in a 15 pound range between 185 and 200, going back and forth depending on my efforts. I really need to hit 175, but a pandemic has been a problem. Yes, I think I’ll blame the pandemic. :)

    I hope you get a handle on the thyroid thing.

    • I was about 145 at 5’11” in high school. A good strong wind could blow me over!

      I hope I get a handle on the thyroid thing, too. It’s making my hair fall out.

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