CSIRO study finds coronavirus pandemic has contributed to weight gain

Trainer Timothy Butler with client Jordan Qian at Henry Rolland Park. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Trainer Timothy Butler with client Jordan Qian at Henry Rolland Park. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

An extra glass of wine and a snack or seven while working from home wasn't a huge concern when the country was fighting a pandemic, but as Canberrans emerge from lockdown there's a new battle many are facing; that of the bulge.

A CSIRO study of almost 4000 people found that weight had suffered throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, with 40 per cent of people feeling as though they had gained weight during the pandemic.

The national science agency survey of its online diet community members found that 66 per cent of respondents were emerging from lockdown feeling their exercise had decreased and 36 per cent reported their diet had worsened to some degree.

CSIRO Behavioural Scientist Dr Emily Brindal said the analysis found coronavirus had an overall negative effect on respondents health and wellbeing.

Dr Brindal said researchers had expected more free time and closer vicinity to fridges and pantries could increase consumption, however, had believed more home cooking might have counteracted the expanding waistline effect.

Of the participants who said they'd gained weight, 61 per cent put it down to an increase in junk food consumption and 63 per cent reported an increase in snacking.

Dr Brindal said they had not asked participants to put an exact value on their extra kilograms.

"However, we do know that for people to be aware of weight gain, they either need to be regularly weighing themselves or gain enough weight that they can see visible changes in their body and the fit of their clothes," she said.

"Generally, it takes more than a couple of kilograms to notice these changes."

Generally, it takes more than a couple of kilograms to notice these changes.

Dr Emily Brindal

Personal trainer manager Timothy Butler said the study reflected the sentiment expressed by many of his clients regarding concerns over weight gain, which he put down to a reduction in non-exercise driven activity.

"This is the incidental energy expenditure we experience carrying out during day to day activities such as walking to the coffee shop, or from the car park to the office, or the desk to the coffee machine," Mr Butler said.

"All of these small daily movements have a compounding effect on maintaining energy balance, and when the home and the office become one and the same it makes it very difficult to keep expanding the same amount of energy.

"Couple that with no access to the gyms for consistent training, and shorter days due to winter settling in, it has become more and more challenging to find ways to move every day."

Mr Butler said while he would never pressure clients into thinking there were good or bad foods, those wanting to get back to a healthier weight should match the input to the output.

"Now that the gyms are open I highly recommend re-establishing a consistent training routine that focuses on getting stronger whilst building a solid base of aerobic fitness," he said.

"This doesn't have to be a seven day a week training plan, and can usually be achieved with a well structured 3-4 day per week strength and conditioning program."

Of the 4000 surveyed in the CSIRO study, almost 60 per cent reported a negative shift in their overall satisfaction with life.

Those who identified as extroverts or highly emotional eaters also reported higher decreases in their average wellbeing levels than others, according to Dr Brindal.

Nutritionist Georgia Houston predominantly treats people with eating disorders at her private clinic in Kingston.

She said for many of her clients coronavirus has worsened disordered eating behaviours, as many felt out of control with changes to their usual routines and environments.

"Eating disorders feed on control or a perceived lack of control," Ms Houston said.

"Add in food insecurity, panic buying and social media's obsession with home workouts to a population who already obsess over food and exercise and it can be a feeding ground for anxiety and exacerbated eating disorder thoughts and behaviours."


Ms Houston said she had also had several new referrals since the pandemic as parents working from home became more aware of their children's problematic behaviour.

She said skipping meals and disordered exercise behaviours such as excessive abdominal workouts had come to the forefront for families spending more time together.

"Unfortunately I think COVID-19 has rattled a lot of people with eating disorders," Ms Houston said.

Dr Brindal said a Yale researchers study found that stress may also contribute to an increased risk for obesity and other metabolic diseases, an insight reflected in the CSIRO research.

"Feeling in control is very important for wellbeing," Dr Brindal said.

"When something unexpected happens and it is negative and we can't control it, it follows pretty naturally that people will have increased feelings of stress and helplessness.

"Being uncertain about the future was one the most selected areas impacted by the pandemic and this probably also related to decreases in wellbeing.

"Lockdown was undoubtedly a tough time for a lot of people but for extroverts and emotional eaters in our survey sample, the loss of social connections and structure was particularly testing."

Mr Butler said one of the simplestways to get back to pre COVID-19 health was to set a daily step goal as a baseline for daily minimum movement.

"This extra energy expenditure will help contribute to the bigger picture without stressing out the nervous system or impacting recovery," he said.

"Also being conscious of the reason for snacking, and being able to identify whether it is hunger or boredom, which can easily be fixed with a glass of water and a bit of patience until the next meal time.

"If the snacking is genuinely due to hunger, choosing to opt for the higher fibre, lower calorie options like fruits and vegetables will help to keep you fuller for longer without massively tipping the scales at the end of the week."

This story 'COVID-19 has rattled a lot of people with eating disorders': Pandemic packs a paunchy punch first appeared on The Canberra Times.