Over the last year, I have consistently heard complaints of gaining unwanted weight while working from home. Recently, I have been getting tons of questions about how to re-establish that feeling of being healthy again. While mental health discussions have been the focus over the course of the pandemic, (and rightly so), I think it’s time we also paid attention to our bodies.
You’re probably thinking, wait, skip this stuff and tell me what’s the bad news you got! Well, according to the scale I dusted off from a garage shelf, as of last November, I put on 10 pounds since the beginning of the lockdowns. This is despite me being obsessively knowledgeable about exercise and nutrition, which also happens to be my job! So if you gained a few unwanted pounds recently (or more than a few), don’t feel bad. It can happen to anyone.
After seeing the scale nearly cross 190 pounds, I decided it’s time to put my knowledge to use and get back to my pre-pandemic condition. To do that, I needed to do some accounting on why I gained the weight in the first place. It didn’t take long to figure it out. For one, when I switched to working from home, food suddenly became much more available. For example, I now had the time to make myself fancy breakfasts with bacon, eggs, and all the other good stuff. Before the pandemic, I rarely had time to eat breakfast at all, since I had to leave the house at 5 or 6 am to train my first clients.
The other significant change was snacking. I often had a half-hour or hour break between online coaching sessions, and it was easy to go upstairs and grab something to eat, whether I was hungry or not. The fact that my wife is an excellent baker didn’t help matters much in this respect, either.
I estimate that my daily caloric intake went up by at least 500 calories, based on those two factors alone. On the other hand, the calories I burnt off dropped significantly because I was not moving nearly as much as I used to. While I still maintained my workouts, I was not doing the usual house calls (many of which I walked to), I didn’t have to pick my kids up at school, and I was sitting most of the day. According to my fitness tracker, I was burning off nearly 300 calories a day less than before. No wonder I gained weight rapidly!
Now that I knew what changed, it wasn’t too hard to figure out how to get back on track and get back to my previous, healthier weight. Here are the three things I focused on:
1) Take Control of Your Eating
I focused on having smaller and healthier breakfasts: just a couple of eggs and a piece of toast or plain Greek yogurt with granola and fresh fruit. The other change I made was to delay my breakfast as late as possible, depending on my work schedule. This change is something I recommend to all my clients who work from home. If you can eat around 9 or 10 am, you create a caloric deficit in the morning. You also shorten the time period between your subsequent meals, which helps fix the other big issue: snacking.
Often, people snack because they get hungry between meals. If you delay breakfast, you compress time until lunch. Then you can hopefully lunch later, to compress time until dinner. I find that if I can have breakfast at 9:30 am or so, I can push lunch to 1:30 and don’t need to eat in-between any of my meals.
Another important consideration is the importance of eating healthy meals that focus on slow-to-digest, lower-calorie foods such as vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, and legumes and pulses. Avoid as much added sugar and flour as you can because these simple carbohydrates are easy to digest and mess with your blood sugar, making you hungry sooner than ideal.
If you snack because you’re bored or it’s a habit, it will require a bit of behavior modification to change. There are several strategies you can use. For example, don’t buy snacks you can’t resist! If it’s not in the house, you can’t eat it. You can also try what I do: drink tea throughout the day. I mix up green and black tea with herbal tea such as peppermint and lemon-ginger. You are not only hydrating yourself but having something to drink tends to diminish the tendency to snack.
A third way is to make snacking less convenient. Don’t have any near your desk or within easy reach. Research shows that the more effort it is to eat, the less you are likely to indulge.
2) Move More
Along with figuring out your eating, how to burn off more calories is the next major hurdle. Unfortunately, working from home is the ultimate recipe for not moving. For example, my average daily step count went from around 12,000 a day to just over 3000 during the early days of the pandemic, not counting any effort made to go for daily walks. The walks around our neighborhood added around 3000 steps, still only taking me to half my previous total.
The biggest change I’ve made to rectify this unfortunate situation is that I now walk in place as much as I can instead of sitting. For example, if I’m on the phone, I’m on my feet and moving my arms and legs the whole time. If I’m in a Zoom meeting that does not require video, I do the same thing. At a good pace, you will take about two steps a second, meaning just 15 minutes of walking in place will add 1800 steps to your total! Having a step-counter such as a fitness tracker can be very motivating. It’s encouraging to see the numbers steadily climb.
Of course, our goal is to burn calories. What I have found through analyzing my fitness tracker data is that walking in place briskly roughly quadruples my caloric output over baseline, from 75 calories an hour (while sitting) to around 300 calories. That is huge! If you add 30-45 minutes of exercise in the form of strength training, cardio, or yoga, you’ll add another 300 or so calories to your total. Combined with the better eating habits outlined previously, you’ll be making progress in no time.
3) Get a Fitness Buddy
Change is hard. Breaking out of a routine that you have settled in over the last year will not be easy. Research shows that having someone you are accountable to is a great way to stay on track with your health goals. Getting your household on board would be a great start, as it would make it much easier to avoid buying snacks, cook healthier meals, and exercise together.
You can also ask a friend to join you. You could share recipes you like, do online exercise classes together, or go for daily walks or runs. You can even talk to your office-mates and get them on board with getting your steps up during meetings.
As I mentioned before, getting a fitness tracker will also be extremely helpful. You don’t have to get a fancy smartwatch. There are several very functional models available for less than $50. I found that my tracker is invaluable in both motivating me and helping track progress. It has really brought into focus how small things (like walking back-and-forth while talking on the phone) can crank up the calories you burn off. Its ability to track sleep is also helpful. Most people sleep less than they should, and being rested is excellent both for having the energy to exercise and for better hormonal balance.
… so don’t feel bad if your progress is intermittent or inconsistent. Focus on each day as a new start. Figure out your obstacles (long workdays, lack of knowledge about exercise, small children at home, etc.) and see how you can work on them. Habits are hard to change, but the more you work on good habits, the more ingrained they become. Don’t give up!
TOM TOTH, Movement Specialist and Fitness Expert, Tom Toth is a strength coach, movement specialist, and fitness educator from Toronto, Canada. Since graduating from the University of Waterloo in 2003, he has dedicated his career to making people move better, feel better, and live better. His primary specialties are helping people with injuries and medical conditions, as well as training high-level athletes. His website is tomtothfitness.com.