Clients at Challenge Fitness in Juárez complete burpees as a part of their warm-up exercises on June 24, 2020. Since the start of the pandemic, many people have complained of the "COVID-15" weight gain. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Pasoans feeling their jeans fitting a little tight these days may have fallen victim to another aspect of the pandemic — weight gain, also being referred to as the “quarantine 15.”

The 15 refers to pounds people may have packed on since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting lives and places like gyms and parks closed in efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Many El Pasoans are still working from home, schooling children from home and are much closer to the refrigerator than ever before, experts say.

How stress can impact the waistline 

Melanie Longhurst, a psychologist with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said the stress people have been under since the global pandemic arrived is a key factor that may be contributing to weight gain.

“We’re all experiencing different levels of stress, and just in general, I think the pandemic is causing stress,” Longhurst said.

Longhurst said there are different reasons why stress can affect weight.

Melanie Longhurst

“It’s complicated but certain things that might happen, or at least one that we know, is that people turn to certain kinds of foods, comfort foods, when they are feeling stressed out,” she said.

Longhurst said people tend to use food as a coping mechanism. Some are unable to go to gyms, or work out like they used to.

“I think there might be different reasons people are being affected in terms of seeing some kind of weight gain during this time,” Longhurst said.

Another issue may be longer periods of ongoing daily stress and emotions like fear, worry and anxiety, which can also lead to emotional eating.

“There are also folks that are feeling down, lonely and it’s really dependent on circumstances because some individuals maybe don’t have other people at home. They might be feeling disconnected, lonely and sad,” Longhurst said.

For those who may have feelings of guilt for putting on some extra weight, Longhurst said it is OK to feel that emotion, so long as people don’t wallow in it.

“If we allow ourselves to feel what we feel and acknowledge that we feel that way, there is no harm there. Emotions serve a purpose,” she said.

Changing behaviors

Longhurst said the key is acknowledging emotions and then taking steps to make changes.

“One is accepting that this is taking place — this is happening — we are in the middle of a global pandemic and there is a lot that is out of our control, and that’s hard to accept. But it’s something that once you cross that point; you practice this radical acceptance of ‘this is what it is,’” she said.

Clients at Challenge Fitness in Ciudad Juárez complete outdoor warm-up exercises. Many adults are seeking options for exercise and fitness due to the weight gain some have experienced since the start of the pandemic. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Here are some of Longhurst’s recommendations:

Begin adding exercises through “smart goals.” Smart goals are specific, measurable and attainable, like picking a few specific days out of the week to take a family walk, or for a designated amount of time. Once you achieve goals, build on them.

Manage stress through meditation or yoga, which also is a good form of exercise.

Get a full night’s sleep. Begin going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time.

Eat mindfully. Mindful eating is a practice where people solely focus on the act of eating instead of eating while working, or being on the phone or doing another activity. Mindful eating helps people be more conscientious of what they are consuming and not to eat for the sake of eating out of boredom or stress.

Limit the types of unhealthy foods that are easily accessible. Replace fatty or sugary snacks with healthier options.

Plan meals ahead if possible. If meals cannot be made ahead of time, have ingredients for meals that need to be cooked ready to save time.

Longhurst said the key is finding a way to start small, but to start nonetheless. Taking too much time to overplan and thinking about making a change can thwart progress.

“It’ll be different for everybody, but it’s realizing that you don’t feel good and taking small steps to make changes,” she said. “Not everyone has the same things, same environment, same work environment (or) neighborhood — it’s about looking at the resources that you do have.”

Possible dietary changes

Dr. Blake Busey, family practice physician with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said he has also seen clients that have put on some weight, but dietary changes can help people.

“I had my own fall at the beginning of the COVID,” Busey said. “I said, ‘Oh well, I’m going to indulge, I’m going to have whatever I want.’ Obviously it doesn’t matter and I put on the (quarantine) 15 like everybody else.”

Busey said one of the things he sees in his practice is that when people spend more time at home, they have more access to the refrigerator.

“At work they don’t have time or access to be eating all day, but at home watching TV, or just sitting around the house feeling miserable; comfort food becomes the thing to do,” he said.

Dr. Blake Busey

Busey said those thinking of making a dietary change should always consult with their physicians, but one strategy that has worked with some of his patients has been restrictive eating, also known as intermittent fasting.

“That is basically giving you a specific time where you cannot eat, then you have your eating period,” Busey said.

A typical timeframe for fasting is from 6 p.m. to noon the following day. Busey said while practicing the method, a person would have a last set of calories at 6 p.m. and the next set of calories at noon the next day. Some people do it twice a week, some do it more often, he said.

“Having simple rules like that has helped them not overindulge all day long,” Busey said. “It works and it’s easy to follow.”

He said the method allows for a six-hour feeding period, but during the 18 hours of fasting, people go through ketosis, causing the body to break down its own fat cells for fuel, which can help reduce insulin in the body.

“If you decrease the amount of insulin that you have hanging around in your body, your sensitivity gets higher, so if there’s less (insulin) then you don’t grow as many fat cells during that (fasting) period,” Busey said. “So not only are you breaking them down through ketosis, but you are not building them.”

Another benefit from fasting is that people consume less during their eating window because the space in the stomach shrinks.

Busey said he recommends eating foods like lean proteins and fresh vegetables, but to avoid root vegetables like potatoes and carrots that have more starch.

He also said writing down what people are eating in a given day is an easy way to begin keeping track of what is being consumed.

“That’s a very simple first start,” Busey said.

He also encourages increasing physical activity and recommends partnering with a friend, or joining an exercise group on social media to stay motivated.

“For exercise, it’s as easy as setting aside 30 minutes a day. (For) 23 and a half hours a day you can do whatever the heck you want, but that 30 minutes a day is dedicated to your health,” he said.

Busey said he does not recommend crash diets because people begin to lose weight in the short term, but are unable to sustain it. He said people should opt for something that is sustainable, something that is an easy modification and that doesn’t require much thought.

“Being able to take a moment and make small changes that are attainable and being OK with long timeframes for the weight loss is how you not only get that weight loss, but maintain that weight loss,” Busey said.

Busey said everybody is different and that it is OK to fail.

“What’s more important is having the perseverance and having the wherewithal to know it’s OK that I failed and will try again tomorrow. Everyday is progress,” Busey said.

Cover photo: Clients at Challenge Fitness in Juárez complete burpees as a part of warm-up exercises. Since the start of the pandemic, many people have complained of the “COVID-15” weight gain. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...