The past year has taken a toll on the physical and mental health of millions of Californians. While we were rightly focused on slowing the spread of the pandemic, widespread shutdowns brought about a more sedentary, inactive lifestyle, which has led to increased weight gain and worsened mental health for many. As Californians look ahead and as more people receive the vaccine, it is time for policymakers and citizens to start reprioritizing physical activity and placing much needed attention on the health equity crisis in our state.
There is a direct correlation between obesity and developing serious COVID-19 complications and chronic diseases. In fact, about 78 percent of people who have been hospitalized, needed a ventilator, or died from COVID-19 have been overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And once the scourge of COVID has passed, the leading causes of death will continue to be heart disease and cancers — all exacerbated by physical inactivity and overweight.
This correlation is heightened by the fact that communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 were also already disproportionately impacted by inactivity and obesity. Data has shown that Black and Latinx communities suffered higher rates of COVID-19. Meanwhile in California, physical inactivity is the highest among Black and Latinx residents, at 23 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
The obesity rate in California is 25.8 percent, but that number jumps to 33 percent for Latinx residents, and 40 percent for Black residents. That figure is expected to be higher now as the pandemic has led to a 32 percent reduction in physical activity among individuals who were physically active.
These correlations can be attributed to the fact that many of our Black and brown communities exist in food deserts, experience a shortage of healthy food options and often have lower access to green space and safe outdoor spaces in which to recreate, among other reasons.
Two recent studies show just how acute the COVID weight gain issue has become. A study in the Journal of American Medicine reported that during the first five months of closures, the average American gained nearly two pounds per month. And an even more concerning report by the American Physiological Association indicated that during the lockdown, 50 percent of millennials had gained weight during the lockdown, averaging an astounding 41 pounds.
Separately, research from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed about four in 10 adults in the United States have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder throughout the pandemic. That’s up from one in 10 during the first six months of 2019. Kaiser also found that many adults have suffered negative impacts on their mental health and well-being — including difficulty sleeping (36 percent) or eating (32 percent), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12 percent) and worsening chronic conditions (12 percent) — due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.
Fortunately, a healthy weight can be achieved through a regimen of healthful eating and physical activity. However, even before the pandemic, only about 23 percent of adults met or exceeded the federal physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Even if an individual can’t meet the full recommended amount of exercise, researchers have found that as little as 20 minutes of physical activity a day can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system. And the pandemic has given us a new understanding of the value of maintaining a strong immune system.
Fitness centers are committed to being part of the solution. They continue to work closely with local, state and federal public health officials as they reopen — implementing capacity restrictions and proven safety protocols like physical distancing, increased sanitization and air filtration. These policies are key to ensuring Californians have access to exercise while also mitigating the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
I encourage policymakers to go beyond the current conversation and continue to discuss the underlying reasons for the health disparities in our state. We must pursue health equity by identifying solutions for food deserts, finding ways to ensure healthy food options regardless of zip code and, importantly, ensuring that every community has adequate and safe spaces for exercise, whether that be in a gym, park or on a walking trail.
Whether you are continuing your personal fitness routine or heading back to your fitness center, the important thing is to get your body active. Staying safe in a post-pandemic world means maintaining a healthy immune system, becoming physically active, eating well and maintaining a healthy body weight. These lifestyle changes will allow you to live longer and happier!
Dr. Richard Carmona served as the 17th U.S. Surgeon General and currently sits on the Chancellor’s Board of Advisors at UC Davis.