Exercise has been one of the focal points of the coronavirus lockdown. At first, we were given one slot a day to leave the house and walk or run, which led plenty of us to take up Couch to 5k when we hadn’t stepped foot in our running shoes for years.
Then came Joe Wicks’ PE classes and mentions of lockdown weight gain, from the quarantine 15 to the news that obese people were more at risk of coronavirus.
The message was loud and clear: ‘Exercise is good, necessary, and for everyone.’
However, if you have a negative view of your body or disordered eating habits, the message may have felt more like ‘everyone is getting fit and losing weight, and if you’re not making use of your time, you’re failing.’
The stress of a global pandemic should mean that the focus is taken off of our weight and place more onto taking care of ourselves overall (yes, even if that means stress-eating, making delicious foods without guilt, and sitting on the couch for as long as they want).
For some, their experience has been the exact opposite due to the amount of pressure being put on fitness right now, and the effects could be long-lasting.
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23-year-old Martha told Metro.co.uk she has ‘felt so rubbish about [her]self during lockdown.’
She continues: ‘Everyone I know seems to have picked up running or yoga or cycling, and whilst I have all of those things easily at my disposal I find it so difficult to get into a good routine or motivate myself.
‘I’m definitely putting on a lot of weight, and trying to be accepting as there is literally a world pandemic on, but it just makes me feel guilty whenever I eat or have something indulgent.
‘It feels like everyone has the time to exercise and better themselves and I just don’t.’
There’s a conundrum many of us are feeling at the moment, given that some are furloughed and most of us who are still working have cut out our commute, where we feel like we ‘should’ have extra time to pick up more, but end up feeling tired, spent, and useless.
Couple that with the fact everyone and their mother is Instagramming recipes and workout routines, and it’s only normal to feel like you’re wasting a golden opportunity.
Martha isn’t the only one. 26-year-old Dayna tells us: ‘I used to have an ED and be teenie tiny, and not being ‘active’ enough in lockdown is bringing back all the intrusive thoughts.
‘The pandemic fitness craze has been a massive trigger. And I know for a lot of other people it has been as well. Everyone is trying to one-up one another on a subconscious level on how productive they are in lockdown.
‘And fitness is a massive part in that – fitness challenges, showing off their new routines, I know influencers who were mainly fashion-focused have shifted their content towards fitness and cooking.
‘I did yoga last night and almost filmed it before thinking “what am I doing, why I am doing this, why can’t I do this without needing to be part of the pandemic fitness hustle?”‘
It’s not totally negative experiences. Some people told us that they’ve felt the lack of comparison in real life between them and other people has been a blessing for their body confidence.
Ella, 22, said: ‘I have felt a lot more comfortable within myself in lockdown, being able to pick and choose when I want to work out and not feel guilty about what I’m eating and how I look.’
25-year-old Marty also told us: ‘I think it’s very much up and down but I have found myself generally more positive. I reckon it’s the lack of comparison!’
Looking specifically at the way weight and weight gain have been focused on during this pandemic are key to understanding how it has been at the forefront of our minds and could continue to be.
On Google, searches around the topic of weight gain significantly reduced around 15 March when lockdown began, then grew and reached a peak for the year on 6 and 7 May.
This rise correlates to when it was reported that obesity was a major risk factor for developing severe complications after contracting coronavirus, and the peak correlates with the day the BBC wrote a feature on the topic.
BEAT – the eating disorder charity – has seen a 50% increase in calls during the pandemic and that their income is set to drop 30% due to fewer donations while everyone has been struggling.
This will likely be the case for a number of charities and organisations in the months to come, potentially making it even harder for people to get the support they need post-corona.
Experts are warning that there may be a ‘mental health tsunami’ as we all re-enter the outside world, with a steep increase in issues like anxiety and depression that may last for years.
‘We’ve never seen a moment where the demand for mental health care will be as great as it’s going to be in the next few months and next couple of years,’ said the National Institue of Mental Health’s Tom Insel.
Body dysmorphia, exercise addiction, or eating disorders do not exist in a vacuum. For example, depression and anxiety are extremely common comorbidities when it comes to eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.
That doesn’t mean that anyone suffering depression or anxiety that’s ramped up due to these external pressures will develop an eating disorder, but it does mean that those with a propensity for both of these issues may be at risk.
This extra time we have right now to sit an ruminate on our thoughts, magnifying our faults or obsessing over our exterior, won’t last forever. But, the other stressors that we’re experiencing (whether financial or personal or professional) aren’t going to go away overnight, and will bleed into our collective mental state.
Psychologist Leslie Sim, who works with the Mayo Clinic tells Metro.co.uk that it’s hard to say what will happen’ with this so-called tsunami.
She believes that it will be reliant on how effectively we return to ‘normal’ after the lockdown is fully over, saying: ‘Certainly if people can go back to some of the things in their life that gave them a sense of meaning and security, and they’re spending less time on social media, things potentially could get better.
‘If you’ve lost your job or if you’re struggling with financial insecurity or you’ve become more isolated – those kinds of things are challenging because they’re they’re real things in these people’s lives that makes their lives difficult,’ says Leslie.
‘Their distress or anxiety or feelings of sadness and demoralisation, that seems like a legitimate, rational reaction to a challenge in their life. Real difficulties in an extraordinary time in their lives.’
Although it’s hard to predict specific outcomes for our body image once the lockdown ends, looking at past outbreaks such as SARS can give us an indication on how things might be.
A paper in the Lancet published by Professor Ed Bullmore, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, stated: ‘If we look at the Sars outbreak in 2003, we know there is evidence there that there were increased rates of anxiety, increased rates of depression and post-traumatic stress and, in some groups, there were also increased rates of suicide.’
This is not just a case of seeing people at the first post-quarantine pub trip looking ripped and feeling somewhat jealous. For some, these low feelings of the way they look could escalate into destructive and scary behaviours.
With that in mind, it’s vital not to minimise disordered behaviours and severe negative feelings as ‘not important enough’ given everything else that’s going on.
Therapy via video call is still available, and it seems that in time we’ll be able to visit health professionals for non-urgent things in the near future. That’s ultimately the best way you can work through body woes.
But in the meantime, Leslie recommends a few techniques to ease the negativity.
‘I think really minimising time spent on social media would be important – and being a critical consumer of media, so not just taking it at face value, understanding all of the distortions and things that go into photography,’ says Leslie.
She also recommends: ‘finding way things in your life that really do give you a sense of value and purpose, whether it’s spending time in nature, kind of getting outside of yourself and that self consciousness, – that negative focus on yourself, the comparisons, all of that.
‘Working also on body acceptance. What does your body do instead of what does it look like.’
Noel, who has termed our recovery after this period of isolation ‘post-traumatic growth’, adds: ‘Removing the self-esteem from your body image is absolutely essential.
‘We are not defined by our looks but by the actions we take in the world that bring us esteem. How have we helped others, for example.
‘We are defined by our loving relationships to ourself and to others. We can learn techniques that involve self-compassion and we can learn to reject negative stereotypes in media, social media and so on.’
While it seems easier said that done if you’re struggling with self-love right now, please try to remember that this time will never be defined as what you looked like or how many burpees you did.
We’ll all look back on this period as something that we got through together with our hearts and minds, and we’ll repair these over the coming months and years with help with those who love us and care for us.
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What Comes Next?
After months of strict lockdown measures, isolation and anxiety – we’re beginning to look to the future.
What will life look like when we emerge into our new normal?
Can things ever be the same as they were? Do we even want them to be the same?
What Comes Next is our series of in-depth features unpicking the possibilities for the future.
Every day for two weeks, we will look at the future of work, dating, mental health, friendships, money, travel, and all the other elements that make up our existence.
Our lives have been turned upside down, but change doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.
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