The researchers found that the resulting stress, anxiety, tiredness and boredom of lockdown are the main causes of unhealthy eating and sedentary behaviour.
The novelty of daily workouts has begun to wear off and taking its place are long overdue barbecues with friends (in parties of five or fewer), all intertwined with a growing sense of frustration and anxiety at the way summer is unfolding, with schools still closed.
A study published recently, from the British Nutrition Foundation, examined how the pandemic has impacted on activity levels and eating habits. The researchers found that the resulting stress, anxiety, tiredness and boredom of lockdown are the main causes of unhealthy eating and sedentary behaviour.
The study found that despite a quarter of us going for daily walks, with one in 10 taking up running or cycling in lockdown, over a third of us are seated for most of the day. “With lots of us still at home more than normal, it’s easy to spend a lot of time sitting and to feel less motivated to eat healthily,” says Sara Stanner, science director.
“In lockdown we ask all clients to wear devices that track their activity levels,” says Matt Roberts, a personal trainer. “What we’ve found in lockdown is these huge peaks of hour-long activity during the day, followed by 23 hours of barely any activity at all.”
Roberts says that ‘incidental exercise’ is key “Even if your calorie intake is about the same as it was pre-lockdown, you’re probably burning fewer calories and gaining weight simply because you’re not walking up and down an escalator several times a day, or walking to the station, or walking over to a colleague’s desk to ask them something.”
Instead, says Roberts, we’re all rooted to the spot with a working day that exists within a 10-metre radius. The answer? Keep moving, at least every half an hour. “Make several trips up and down the stairs each day, walk around the house (or the roads near your house) while you talk to your boss, walk to the shops to buy lunch, potter and tidy. Just don’t sit down all day.”
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Another option is to invest in a standing desk, or change your work station, says Bridget Benelam, a senior nutrition scientist who worked on the BNF study. “We know that even if you’re active once a day, long periods of sitting aren’t good for health. I’ve started working standing up, placing my laptop on a chest of drawers that’s the right height so I don’t have to hunch or look down at the screen.”
A daily bike ride, your morning walk; all these things are fine, says Roberts, but if you want to maintain your weight or lose some, you have to slightly up your effort each week. “Our bodies get used to activity levels,” he says, “and the net result becomes less if there is no increase in intensity. Our body’s reaction drops.”
In other words, you need to slightly increase your efforts if you want to see results and the same walk each day won’t have the same effect as it did at the start of lockdown.
“At this point, give yourself constant little pushes. If you’re cycling regularly, go and find new roads or ones that have some elevations. If you’re walking, walk for longer, walk faster, or again, find some hills to walk up. You need to overload your muscle structure, to burn calories and lose fat.”
You’ve done your 5k, or your yoga. So surely a bowl of ice cream after dinner won’t hurt? “It’s very easy to eat 300 calories in a scoop or two of ice cream. It’s far harder to burn off the same amount with a run,” says Roberts. “In normal life, when you’re going up and down escalators, it doesn’t matter too much, but in lockdown a extra few hundred calories each day will quickly lead to weight gain.”
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Prof Jeff Brunstrom, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Bristol, agrees: “The gains of exercise are quickly offset by grazing,” he says.
Or as Louise Parker, a personal trainer and weight loss expert who has worked with Emma Thompson and the Duchess of Cambridge, says: “A daily run won’t outdo a bad diet. Weight management is a four-legged stool, made up of eating, activity, living well generally and mind set.”
Prof Brunstrom runs controlled studies at Bristol to discover why people chose certain foods and why they overeat, and he’s found evidence that screen-based eating wreaks havoc with appetite.
“Eating in front of any type of screen – a TV, a laptop, while glancing at your phone – not only encourages sedentary behaviour but also overeating,” he says. “Recent evidence found that eating while you’re distracted by a screen affects the amount you eat at a subsequent meal, irrespective of whether your next meal is screen-based.”
Prof Brunstrom says studies suggest a memory is formed for a meal when you eat it because our memory of a meal affects our appetite for our next meal. “You can play around with it, however, and if you avoid screens at all mealtimes, you’re less likely to overeat at all meals.”
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“Comfort eating in lockdown is normal because we’re humans and we need comfort because a lot of us are grieving in some way,” says Parker. “Whether we’re grieving the loss of loved ones, or the loss of seeing friends, or our children’s summer sports day, we’re all grieving in some way for lost plans. And the last few weeks, things seemed to have turned darker, with more uncertainty and anxiety over our future and our children’s future.”
And the result, says Parker, is that she’s seeing more of her clients seeking comfort, often in food. “A lot of people have a tendency to comfort themselves in unhealthy behaviours, like overeating, high-sugar foods, or alcohol. Children and young adults are doing the same, and your whole house is probably grazing because they’re bored and looking for comfort.”
Parker, who has three children aged 7, 10 and 13, mixes up a big vat of milk, frozen bananas, a couple of scoops or oats and 2 tbsp of cocoa powder in her blender every morning and pours the mixture into mini milk jars that she puts in her fridge door. “Or I’ll make a higher protein one with Greek yogurt, frozen summer berries and oats. I also pour out almonds or berries topped with dark chocolate shavings into little shot glasses and leave them on the side in the kitchen. That way, we all have something sweet, fun and healthy to snack on when we need comforting.
“Clients often ask me, ‘How can I stop comfort eating in lockdown?’ and I say, ‘Don’t stop comfort eating, just redefine what comfort food is.’”