Covid-19 couldn’t have hit at a worse time. Of course, there’s never really a good time for a pandemic to hit, but right now we’re in the middle of struggling with another major epidemic: obesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates have careened past 40% in the United States.
Internationally, the rate is 13% according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which sounds like an improvement until you consider that number has tripled since 1975.
But these two epidemics don’t exist in isolation. They involve many of the same health issues, which makes them hopelessly tangled.
In fact, the CDC has put obesity — defined as a BMI of 30 or higher — on its list of underlying medical conditions that “increase a person’s risk of severe COVID-19 illness.”
Before we dig deeper into the “why” of the unfortunate intersection, let’s make one thing clear: This is not about “fat-shaming.”
Between stay-at-home orders, the closing of gyms and other fitness facilities, and general stress, it’s perfectly reasonable that you may have gained a few pounds during quarantine.
People even have a name for it — “The Covid 15.” Of course, even that’s not an excuse but a reason to be even more vigilant; we should still try our best to stay active and to eat right, but we’re only human.
The topic we’re discussing here is weight gain that is so substantial that it negatively impacts your health and could make you more susceptible to other illnesses.
How do you know if you fall into that demographic?
While your healthcare provider is the only one who should diagnose obesity, measuring your body mass index (BMI) can be a strong indicator.
Most of the time, a person with a BMI of 30 or higher is likely obese. If it’s 40 or higher, that approaches severe obesity.
To put this into perspective, an average 5’9” adult may be considered obese at 203 pounds and severely obese at 271 pounds.
Obesity is related to a number of health vulnerabilities, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
And as we continue to learn about COVID-19, the obesity connection has only become more conclusive, especially in younger populations.
A July 2020 retrospective cohort study in the Annals of Internal Medicine (funded by the National Institutes of Health) looked at over 2,400 adults hospitalized with the coronavirus and determined obesity to be “associated with increased risk for intubation (needing to be hooked to a breathing tube) or death from COVID-19 in adults younger than 65 years.”
Another study published in August 2020 in the same journal looked at nearly 7,000 COVID-19 patients and concluded, “Obesity plays a profound role in the risk of death from COVID-19, particularly in male patients and younger populations.”
In an editorial that accompanied the study, John Hopkin University cardiologist David A. Kass, M.D., writes, “The consistency of this new study and prior research should put to rest the contention that obesity is common in severe COVID-19 because it is common in the population. Obesity is an important independent risk factor for serious COVID-19 disease.”
There are a few reasons for this connection.
Obesity promotes inflammation and blood clots, both issues linked to COVID-19 infection. Obesity is associated with several causes of cardiovascular diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, which can also be linked to creating an additional vulnerability when exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
Finally, abdominal fat impairs your ability to breathe.
“It requires more muscle force to displace the diaphragm downward when a substantial fat mass lies below it,” explains Kass in his editorial. “Abdominal obesity also makes it more difficult to breathe in a prone position that is favored to improve ventilation in patients with COVID-19.”
Reversing obesity takes time, commitment, and oftentimes professional assistance, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from taking steps to help themselves.
Fortunately, two important steps for anyone struggling with their weight — proper nutrition and staying active — are also strongly recommended for anyone with a desire to improve their BMI and be better equipped to face the challenging times brought on by COVID-19 and all diseases associated with lifestyle choices.
They also stress the importance of regular exercise in coping with stress.
We can do our part by taking care of our health with conscious food and exercise choices.
Healthy habits are actions that make the biggest difference. Eating right and working out. Whether you’re turning your own life around or leading by example, you’ll also become part of the solution to the obesity epidemic.