March 11, 2021

COVID-19 and Self-esteem

COVID-19 affects approaches to diets, fitness routines as individuals have more time to focus on self image

By Hannah Burkhart | Senior Writer

Clarification appended.

W hile doom scrolling during the state-wide lockdown in March 2020, people who were once on a perfect path in their fitness journey were suddenly thrown off when gyms closed, and many found themselves examining their appearances more and comparing their bodies to those of social media influencers.

Deborah Murray, a nutrition professor of instruction at OU, said the increasing use of video conferences and more time at home has given people more time to stare at themselves and pick apart their insecurities. She said during the pandemic, as people have more time to sit at home and contemplate their body image, it is triggering for people who try to work on their body image and stay in a good, balanced and healthy place when it comes to how they view themselves.

For many, COVID-19 is an incredibly stressful and traumatic experience; stressful situations can have a huge effect on mental health. A post on the International OCD Foundation website said researchers of a study for the Genomic Psychiatry Cohort looked at individuals with only obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and individuals with both OCD and body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD, to examine whether there are different rates of traumatic event exposure between the groups. The researchers found individuals with both BDD and OCD described a notably higher exposure rate to “at least one traumatic event.”

As COVID-19 has changed the idea of normality and raged through the world for an entire year, people have had more time to contemplate their self-esteem.

“It is more prevalent because of our culture now,” Murray said. “We are scrutinizing ourselves. We are seeing our image more often and kind of attending to ourselves.”

Murray said society thinks about food when they are stressed, as it can soothe and self-medicate. She referred to the influx of body image insecurities as a secondary consequence because it is not getting much limelight due to everything that is happening in the world. She said once the pandemic is over, body dysmorphia amid the pandemic will probably be discussed.

“The social function of food has gotten canceled, so the psychological function has expanded,” Murray said.

Murray said she has noticed the heightened awareness of how much disinformation society is exposed to on a day-to-day basis.

YouTube fitness influencers have used the pandemic to their advantage by posting videos with titles such as “AB WORKOUT - Lose Weight in just 7 Days” and “What I Eat In a Day.” Young creators on platforms such as TikTok have made jokes about gaining the “quarantine 15,” and triggering videos about eating disorders are commonly posted on the application. Young audiences are taking in the intense discussion of body image on social media platforms, and their vulnerability causes them to take the content too seriously and develop overexercising habits and eating disorders.

“I think nutrition has always been a discipline where disinformation is a very ‘This worked for me; this can work for you’ message,” Murray said. “Especially when someone is young, like many social media users, they can be very easily misled. During the pandemic, YouTubers have had more time to make videos that can be misleading. Us dieticians have to fight against this, and we always go back to the science: what do we know about energy balance?”

Energy balance is the idea that if an individual seldom works out, they burn fewer calories than someone who regularly works out and, therefore, eat fewer calories because they typically are not as hungry and have less to recover from.

Murray encourages exercising from home if gyms are out of the question, rather than eating due to boredom. Murray said mindfulness and intuitive eating are important because listening to body queues is the healthiest way to know when to eat.

Students at Ohio University have noticed a change in their eating and exercise habits amid COVID-19. Self-esteem during the pandemic has been a fluctuating spectrum for many, with high highs and low lows.

Mack Wells, a sophomore studying psychology, has a history of experiencing body image issues. In the past, Wells had an eating disorder and went into recovery for it. She said she already had a fragile body image before the pandemic.

Wells said right before the pandemic, she was at a place where she was comfortable in her body and felt confident when she looked in the mirror. She experienced the popular self-improvement phase many people went through at the beginning of the pandemic, but once that fell through, she gained weight and did not feel good about her body image.

“I saw people on social media also gaining weight, which made me feel less bad about it,” Wells said. “But at the same time, you're your hardest critic.”

About six months into the pandemic, Wells noticed her body changing. She said although she has days when she doesn’t like the way she looks, she finds parts of her that she does enjoy and cherishes them, which motivates her to become the best version of herself.

“It is more prevalent because of our culture now. We are scrutinizing ourselves. We are seeing our image more often and kind of attending to ourselves.”—Deborah Murray, a nutrition professor of instruction at OU

“Luckily, I came to the mindset that my body is protecting me and is what is keeping me alive and healthy,” Wells said. “So instead of punishing myself for feeling it, I have decided to embrace it and be the happiest and healthiest version of myself I can.”

Ben Wielgopolski, a junior studying journalism, is a trainer for Ohio University’s hockey team and is currently studying to become a certified strength and conditioning specialist. He said his fitness knowledge is fairly new, as he started getting serious about it when the pandemic first hit in March 2020.

Before the pandemic, Wielgopolski was coming out of a keto diet phase, and he said he’s against it for numerous reasons. Personally, he was working on gaining muscle, and the keto diet is high protein and low carbohydrate. Muscle is gained by eating more calories, which includes healthy carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are also necessary to recover from weight lifting.

Wielgopolski ate 3300 calories per day when the pandemic first started and is now eating 3600 to 4000 calories per day. He enjoys cooking for himself because it is easier to make his own food, knowing everything that’s in it.

“I changed my relationship with what I eat for a better perspective,” Wielgopolski said.

He thinks a big reason people have become increasingly concerned about their body image amid the pandemic is due to the fact that they are trying to stay safe and avoid gyms, and not everyone has the means to build home gyms.

“Another big thing is you're stuck at home, you binge-watch stuff, you watch a whole season (of a TV show) and there goes a bag of chips and four cookies,” Wielgopolski said. “So people are getting nervous because they've lost track of their fitness.”

Jalen Warren, a senior studying exercise physiology, said the COVID-19 shutdown impacted his outlook on his personal fitness journey. He became more serious about his fitness goals in 2014, and he started lifting weights regularly. For four months during quarantine, he was doing strictly body weight and kinesthetic exercises. He said the change in exercises reset his body in a way, as it assisted in his mobility and flexibility.

“It also helped me figure out why I really like doing it (exercising),” Warren said. “Not just lifting heavy weights and doing all that. I care about the movement and my body’s ability to be able to move in different ways … COVID had me rediscover why I like to work out.”

Dr. Andrea Lewis, assistant professor of exercise physiology at OU, said in an email her advice to people seeking workout regimens during the pandemic is to find something they enjoy. She said if an individual enjoys the exercises they are doing, they will do it more consistently, and consistency is key for health.

“Lifting weights is an excellent exercise to build muscle, which will increase your metabolic rate and how many calories you burn at rest,” Lewis said in an email. “So if you don’t like doing cardio, this is a good option for you and has many health benefits. It’s best if you can find an aerobic exercise you like and do that 3-5 days per week and do weight lifting on 2-3 days per week.”

Lewis said it is important for people who scroll through fitness influencers’ social media to understand they are paid to post and promote products they don’t even use themselves. YouTubers tend to make promises in their video titles about how quickly their 10-minute workout will lead to results. She added it is incredibly difficult to lose weight, and it does not happen fast without over exercising and extreme diets, which are very harmful for one’s health.

“To put weight loss into numbers - to lose a pound of fat per week you would need to burn 3500 calories,” Lewis said in an email. “If you did a 30 minute cardio session you might burn 300 calories (maybe a bit more or less, depending on your body mass). If you did this every day for a week, you would only burn 2100 calories (7x300). That means you still have 1400 calories to lose to have that ONE pound of weight loss.”

Lewis added there are some helpful and enjoyable workouts online, and as long as an individual enjoys the workouts they are doing rather than counting the number of calories they lose throughout it, consistency and progress will come.

As gyms were closed at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic and some people continue to feel unsafe in them, Lewis said finding workout partners can be helpful to stay on track. She also said blocking off time in her calendar for exercising and taking a break from screen time has been helpful for her amid the pandemic.

“Again, finding a routine is key,” Lewis said in an email. “You should plan for exercise just like you would for class or work. And if you miss a day, don’t punish yourself. Accept it and remind yourself you deserve off days every now and then and get back to it ASAP."

Clarification appended: A previous version of this article credited Jessica Price as the author of a post made by the International OCD Foundation when she was not the author of said post. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.

AUTHOR: Hannah Burkhart
EDITOR: Jillian Craig
COPY EDITOR: Bre Offenberger
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Anastasia Carter