How to lose weight during quarantine

Believe it or not, there are people who have lost weight during the pandemic. Here's how they've done it.
Woman working out in quarantine
TODAY illustration / Getty Images

Thanks to frayed nerves and all those sourdough recipes, a lot of folks have gained the “quarantine 15” during lockdown. “With a few exceptions almost everyone has gained at least a few pounds and some people much, much, more,” observes Gillian Mueller Goddard, MD, an endocrinologist and nutritionist of Park Avenue Endocrinology & Nutrition in New York City. “Plus, I think a lot of people are drinking more, and alcohol can add a lot of calories without filling you up or providing much nutrition.”

Close proximity to the fridge hasn’t helped anyone in their quest to curb cravings, either. “Convenience and temptation are major drivers of snacking. If food is readily available to us and we don’t have to work hard to get it, you can bet that many people will eat — this is known as the ‘proximity effect,’” says Ali Webster, Ph.D., RD, Director of Research and Nutrition Communications, International Food Information Council (IFIC), mentioning that, in one study, temptation was the top reason people chose unhealthy snacks. Not to mention the monotony of working where we sleep. According to the just released IFIC’s 2020 Food and Health Survey, one in five people ranked “boredom” in their top three reasons for snacking.

But while some have fallen victim to food temptations and less movement, others have been able to use the time at home to focus on their health — even within the same household.

During quarantine, Amy Traynor from Brooklyn, NY decided to go “hardcore” on Weight Watchers. She’d already lost 25 pounds before quarantine and now she’s down 40 pounds. She says she found the program much easier to sustain while stuck at home. “Meeting people in restaurants wasn’t an option, I was cooking more, and I had consistency and a routine in my days that I don’t always have,” she says. Meanwhile, her husband didn’t really change his diet but added 1-2 workouts a day to combat the "quarantine 15." He only lost a couple of pounds.

Similarly, Hrag Vartanian and his husband Veken would often prepare meals together in the height of quarantine. Though both New Yorkers found their daily activities significantly curtailed while confined to their apartment (especially Veken’s trips to the gym), Hrag still managed to drop 12 pounds rather easily by cooking at home and consciously limiting sugar and salt, while Veken gained about 5.

Which poses the question: When given the same environment to work with over the past six months, why have some people been able to lose weight, while others have packed on the pounds? Couples living under the same roof provide an interesting case study on what to do (and what not to do) to stay healthy during the pandemic. Here are some of the lifestyle choices that have made all the difference during these unprecedented times.

Get up and move more

Vartanian says his husband was very active before his gym classes were put on hold. A curtailed workout routine and less daily movement (no more going from A-to-B to get to and from work) means a slowed metabolism. “Instead of a commuter train ride to work, we walk 10 steps from our bed to our desk,” Goddard says. “Plus, at work everything is farther away — the bathroom, the kitchen, the parking lot. At the office, you might walk up the stairs to another floor to get to a meeting in a conference room and at home you just log into another Zoom meeting.”

Michael D. Jensen, MD, Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, says if you become more sedentary, you will lose muscle and you will burn fewer calories from activity. “Less muscle means a lower metabolic rate at rest,” he explains.

To add more movement to your day, Goddard recommends adding strength training to a cardio routine to fuel your calorie-burning furnace. “Strength training builds metabolically active muscle,” she says. No room for weights in your home? Try using exercise bands or your own body weight.

Be disciplined about diet

Traynor says she stuck strictly to her Weight Watchers regimen and added exercise, while her husband worked out more but ate the same foods he always did. Vartanian made a concerted effort to cut out salt and sugar, while his husband wasn’t as strict.

Discipline seems to be the common denominator and Goddard says discipline and portion control are the keys to keeping your weight under control. “We are consuming more carbs — the bread, the cookies we made to keep our kids occupied, the wine we feel we deserve for making it through another day. You can eat the same things, just maybe not as much. Don't drink your calories — water (seltzer is okay) and unsweetened coffee or tea and nothing else.”

Manage your stress

“Lockdown has been really stressful for my husband. He’s been working like crazy,” Traynor says. His stress may be another reason why he’s losing weight at a slower pace. Goddard says stress increases our cortisol levels, which can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain. “Back when our stress response was evolving, it was doing so to help us deal with a very different kind of stress, like meeting a tiger. When you meet a tiger you need to run away. Insulin resistance for a short period of time makes more glucose available to our muscles so we have fuel to run. When we escape the tiger, our cortisol levels fall and our temporary insulin resistance resolves. COVID stress is not episodic; it’s been going on for six months. We don't need extra glucose to run away from COVID. We’re more sedentary, so we store that extra glucose as fat.”

COVID stress is not episodic; it’s been going on for six months. We don't need extra glucose to run away from COVID. We’re more sedentary, so we store that extra glucose as fat.

Gillian Mueller Goddard, MD

Get more sleep

Traynor describes her ability to sleep as her “superpower,” while her husband struggles to catch consistent zzz’s. Goddard says combining our work and living spaces can affect sleep, which can affect your metabolism. “Without a commute, there is no beginning or end to the day. We are working longer hours, just sitting at our desk,” she says. “Working from home is also contaminating some of our spaces. Sitting in your bed on your laptop working may affect your sleep later, and lack of sleep definitely slows down your metabolism.”

Remember: It is harder for women

An unfortunate reminder for the women out there: If you’re in a cis-het partnership and your male partner is losing weight more easily, know you are not alone. When it comes to weight loss, men and women are not created equally.

“It’s an issue of body composition,” Goddard explains. “Testosterone helps men build more muscle. So, if a man and a woman are the same height and weight, the man will typically have more muscle mass and less fat. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so men will burn more calories over the course of the day even at rest.”

Age also plays a factor. “After menopause, women are further disadvantaged because they lose estrogen, which helps them store subcutaneous fat, so they tend to gain more fat in their midsections called visceral fat,” Goddard says. “Visceral fat makes the body more resistant to insulin, which makes it ever easier to gain weight and ever harder to lose weight.”

But every body is different

As with Hrag and Veken, same-sex couples can lose weight at different rates, too. “There is huge variability between people in both resting metabolic rate and the amount of calories they expend in activity, so even if you’re in a same-sex couple eating the exact same food, one person could theoretically gain weight while the other loses weight,” says Jensen.

It can be discouraging when a couple eats basically the same food, but one partner drops weight with ease while the other struggles to button their jeans. Ultimately, whether you’re trying to shed the "quarantine 15" or just get through the pandemic without gaining weight, the key is to avoid comparing your weight gain or loss to your partner. “Comparing yourself to others when it comes to weight management never seems to end well,” says Jensen.