Achieving Balance as Remote Work Environments Continue

Published Date: November 29, 2021

The COVID19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on obesity as a major public health issue for two particular reasons. First, obesity is one of the strongest risk factors for severe COVID19 illness. Second, and the reason for this article, remote work environments have led to weight gain due to a variety of factors.

Colloquially called the “COVID 19” pounds, remote work- and pandemic-related weight gain has many causes, some fairly obvious and others more covert. Regardless of how the COVID19 pandemic plays out, it seems that working remotely from home is here for the foreseeable future in some capacity or another. So how do we manage or prevent the weight gain associated with working remotely? Let us examine a few of these challenges and ponder workable solutions to overcome them.

An underappreciated cause of weight gain is inadequate sleep. Not only inadequate duration of sleep, but shifted sleep (staying up later) can hamper metabolism. For many, working from home means that less prep time is needed in the mornings. No shower. No commute. Possibly no pants besides your pajamas bottoms. This often leads to staying up later the night before, with or without streaming hours of your favorite shows (screen time within 30-60 of bedtime further disrupts sleep!). With suboptimal sleep, hunger-related hormone levels change, leading to weight gain and possibly decreased muscle mass. ‘Willpower’ (a term I’ll use to describe a collection of factors that determine our ability to actually do what we want to do or not do what we do not want to do) decreases and weight gain follows.

The simple solution? Get more sleep. Easy to read here but harder to accomplish. Start with good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene involves optimizing yourself and your environment to promote sleep. Some tactics include turning screens off 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime, avoiding caffeine for 8 hours prior to going to bed, setting a strict bedtime with the goal of working up to 7-9 hours of sleep total, and getting some exercise during the day.

Stress can also lead to weight gain, in part due to its negative effects on willpower. Like inadequate sleep, stress is often easier to identify than it is to address. Stress from the pandemic. Stress from kids’ schools. Stress from blurring the boundary between home time and work time. Stress. Stress. Stress.

Strategies to manage stress are countless, and successful approaches vary person-to-person. Deep breathing, mindfulness, practicing gratitude, prayer, adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, and exercise can all potentially help to cope with stress. A first step is to identify what helps you personally manage stress. Listening to music can be incredibly relaxing for some people but useless for others. Taking time to unwind with a hobby is a nice thought, but do you have extra time to commit to a hobby? Reflect on yourself and your preferences and constraints to find what will work best for you. If you find that you have more severe stress, depression, or anxiety, please talk with your healthcare provider for other treatment ideas.

It likely is no surprise that working remotely can increase sedentary time. It is not uncommon for someone working remotely to accumulate only a few hundred steps per day. A few steps from the bed to the bathroom to the kitchen to the ‘office’ where you sit for the next 8+ hours. While the relationship between physical activity and weight gain and weight loss is complex, it seems reasonable to work to reduce sedentary time.

Physical activity as simple as standing or walking can be beneficial. Ideally, stand once every 15 minutes. If you are able, arrange your home workstation so that you can stand while you work. Some people find that they are more mentally alert if they stand while they work. If you have a tendency to get deep into your work and forget to stand, set a timer to remind yourself. Some smart watches have reminders specifically for this purpose. Ideally, work up to 150 minutes of moderate intensity movement per week.

Possibly the most important variable with weight gain and weight loss is caloric intake. How much a person eats is controlled by an incredibly complex network of factors ranging from genetics and hormones to food availability and emotional state. When working remotely, the distance between the workstation and food has been drastically decreased, sometimes to mere feet, so that food availability is much higher. This geographic proximity increases the likelihood of eating. Increased stress and inadequate sleep lead to increased hunger and, therefore, often to increased eating, especially if food is nearby.

There are a few tactics to counter increased caloric intake. First, distance food from the workstation as much as possible to reduce the chance of eating. Keep food in the pantry with the door closed – nothing at your workstation and nothing on the kitchen counter. Even better, keep the less desirable foods at the grocery store and out of your home altogether. Second, set an eating routine. Routines are almost always helpful for achieving behavior change. Third, choose high quality foods when you do eat. More vegetables is always the right answer to nutrition questions. Highly palatable foods (think ice cream, cake, burgers, etc), truly are addicting to the human brain. Get enough sleep and manage your stress as well. If you are still struggling, consider working with a dietician or a behavioral health provider who specializes in eating behaviors.

Remote work environments have many benefits but also many challenges, including challenges that promote weight gain. We have identified several of the more common causes of remote work environment-induced weight gain. By implementing some of the simple ideas we’ve discussed, you can successfully prevent and combat the weight gain associated with working remotely.

Written by: Christopher Weber MD, FAAP, FACP, CSCS

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