Pandemic pounds, body image, and why people are asking the wrong questions

I’m just saying, maybe we should ask different questions about our fitness during the pandemic.

There are two competing messages in regards to what has happened to people’s fitness during the pandemic.

The first goes something like, “Here’s how to lose all those pandemic pounds!” Or something like that.

The second is a stiff counter narrative, admonishing people to give themselves grace if they’ve added a few, and scolding those who, in their minds, are guilt-tripping people over their inability to uphold a body image ideal during a stressful time.

In both cases, the focus is more or less on appearance. What I’m going to suggest is scrapping both narratives for something more useful.

But first, let me tell you a personal story. It goes like this:

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in earnest about a year ago, my gym shut down. I did workouts from home for a couple of months until it reopened. I waited to see how serious the gym’s management would take COVID-19 safety protocols, was satisfied with their work and started up again. So I began lifting hard, eating to gain some muscle, and running less. Seeing that in-person races weren’t on the horizon, I figured I’d go all-in on the lifting and run just enough to keep up a measure of cardiovascular fitness.

The good news is that I got a lot stronger. I gained some muscle mass. And I was “fit” enough to do some of the more taxing things I love.

The bad news is that without the normal fall race season, I didn’t have that one piece of my training that kept my weight in check: long runs, speed work, and plenty of mileage. Once summer ended, I didn’t switch to race training. I just kept doing the same thing I’d been doing since May.

As my strength gains peaked in February, my body did what everyone’s will do: Plateau. It’s inevitable that any strength program has a shelf life, and the fact that I was able to use mine for nine months and see gains throughout that time is astonishing. But even then, a ceiling was reached.

I got stronger during the pandemic. But I let some things slide that are biting me in the butt right now.

And by consistently eating more than normal (sometimes by design, and sometimes because work-from-home = easy access to the fridge), my body did what a lot of people’s bodies will do: It stopped using those extra calories for muscle-building and started storing them as body fat. There’s a term for it: insulin resistance. And it’s a bad thing. So while I picked up a good amount of strength, I also gained a bunch of extra weight in all the wrong places: in my belly, around my waist, and very likely around my vital organs. Needless to say, that’s not healthy.

I found that as I got heavier, all the other things I liked doing – running, biking and hiking – all got harder, and not just in terms of being winded. My back, hips, knees, ankles and feet all let me know that carrying around a lot of extra weight was doing harm.

So I have a choice: live with my new pandemic pounds or get rid of them.

Going back to my original point about the two competing narratives: In both cases, the focus is on the wrong thing. On one side, you’ve got someone urging you to look your best, and on the other is one telling you to love your body as it is. On the surface, neither is necessarily wrong. But the question they pose is.

What should the focus be? Answer: How is my body performing?

How I see it, body “performance” is examined in two ways. I’m going to use really general terms to keep it easy. One way is “internal” and the other is “external.”

Internal includes things such as how well your cardiovascular system is oxygenating your body. Is your heart working harder than it should? How’s your blood pressure? Does your current physical condition compromise your immune system? Are the habits you picked up during the pandemic negatively affecting your metabolism? How well are you sleeping compared to pre-pandemic weight gain? Are your internal organs functioning properly? How does your blood work look? If the answers to these questions fall to the negative side, this isn’t a question of “body love.” This is a question of your short- and long-term health prospects.

External has to do with how your body moves. Are you more gassed from walking a flight of stairs? Are you finding that your back hurts more? How are your hips, knees and ankles feeling when you’re out for a longer walk? Or when you run? Or after a tennis match?

If you’re more athletically inclined, how are your times looking on your training runs? Or when you’re on the bike? Are you falling further behind your pre-pandemic athletic performance? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got work to do if you want to regain those abilities.

The fact is this: We beat ourselves up with false narratives on body image. BMI is a joke, but it’s still used. We look at “the ideal” and conclude we’re slacking if we don’t resemble fitness models or Instagram stars. All of that needs to go away if it’s undermining your mindset. I’ve seen plenty of people who don’t have the right “numbers,” whether it’s body composition, BMI, weight on the scale, and so on, but their bodies look just fine and they are physically capable of doing all the things they love (my fastest 5K time happened at a weight that was 15 pounds more than when I ran my second-fastest time). And often, they are internally very healthy people.

But if your body is not performing well – internally and externally – then now is not the time to hold back. If you can’t run or play a sport like you want to, or hike as far or as much as you used to, then the joy of those pursuits is stolen.

If I’m going to get back to this form, I’ve got some work to do. And body image has nothing to do with it.

More critically, if your body is not performing well internally, then you’re staring down a future filled with potentially expensive, painful and possibly debilitating health problems. Let that go on too long, and they can cascade. If your pandemic pounds aren’t hurting you and you’re fine with how you look, don’t let anyone guilt you into doing/feeling anything. But if those pandemic pounds are robbing you of your health, it’s time to act.

Bob Doucette

3 thoughts on “Pandemic pounds, body image, and why people are asking the wrong questions

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