Managing Obesity, Stress and Depression During the COVID-19 pandemic

February 1, 2021
Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Getting a handle on the pandemic must include efforts to address the obesity and mental health crises as well

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis thoroughly disrupted the notion that public health crises can be handled in single doses, one at a time. Rather, it exposed our country’s unique vulnerabilities in the face of a novel respiratory virus. Persistent, unaddressed obesity means that nearly half (42.5%) of American adults are at a higher risk of the virus’ most adverse effects. 

Consider also that obesity is associated with significant increases in lifetime diagnosis of major depression, bipolar depression, panic disorder and agoraphobia. Not only are patients with obesity uniquely at risk for the medical complications of COVID-19, but they are also particularly vulnerable to the negative mental health implications of social distancing measures aimed at reducing viral spread.

As a new year dawns and we begin to look ahead to life beyond COVID-19 — now in its second year of out-of-control spread in the United States and abroad — getting a handle on the pandemic must also include efforts to address the obesity and mental health crises as well. To that end, clinicians and other healthcare professionals are well-positioned to make a positive impact by educating ourselves on the medical factors driving obesity, stress and depression during COVID-19.

Stress: The Hidden Danger Driving Obesity and Depression During Quarantine

Our patients are under more stress than ever as a result of the ongoing pandemic — and helping them manage that stress to achieve better health outcomes continues to be a medical priority for clinicians and other primary healthcare providers. Stress is a completely natural part of our sympathetic nervous system that can be beneficial in certain situations.

In fact, acute stress can increase visual acuity, decrease pain, increase blood flow, and boost the immune system. But chronic stress can lead to a number of adverse health outcomes. It’s also been associated with an increased risk for obesity. Helping patients reduce the risk of COVID-19, manage obesity, and reduce quarantine-related stress, anxiety and depression should be top treatment goals for healthcare professionals and providers, regardless of specialty. Consider advising patients to incorporate the following wellness strategies to reduce the risk of hospitalization, boost resilience and improve overall health:

Stay healthy with safe goals: Social distancing measures aimed at reducing viral spread have completely changed the way we move through the world, but discovering better health is still a worthwhile — and achievable — goal. Be sure to advise patients that the easiest way to stay on track is by setting realistic health goals that can be safely achieved. Everyday gymgoing may not be a realistic goal at this time, but resolving to take regular walks around the neighborhood is a realistic goal for most patients.

Stream less, do more: Creative hobbies and other active pursuits are better for stress management and overall health than endlessly streaming television, movies and apps on various screens and devices. Educate your patients about the benefits of seeking out more active and enriching after-work activities such as journaling, reading, puzzles and other types of art therapy.

Continue to practice self-care: Neglecting self-care is easy during an ongoing global health crisis, but now is time for patients to really engage in the behaviors and habits that drive overall health. This is particularly true for patients with obesity on long term treatment plans. Counsel your patients on the importance of sticking to self-care at this extraordinary moment in time.

Strive for social connections: The COVID-19 crisis continues to prove the enriching impact of social connections on overall health and well-being. Certainly, it is important to practice social distancing measures to mitigate viral spread, it is also important to cultivate social connections that matter. Encourage patients to maintain social connectivity as best they can right now through phone calls or the multiple digital communication platforms available today.

See the good: Maintaining a positive outlook can be hard when it seems like the only news pouring in these days is bad news. But actively seeking out feel-good news stories or ways to help those in need can have a significant impact on mood and well-being. Consider advising patients to seek out the good in a complicated situation. As an example, volunteer work can be a great outlet for COVID-related stress.

As we edge closer to life beyond the pandemic, we must not underestimate the ways in which persistent obesity and stress made the U.S. population particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. As healthcare professionals, we share a responsibility to continue advancing our understanding of the public health issues that impact significant swaths of our patient population.

The Obesity Medicine Association (OMA) offers a chance to do just that. With a trove of resources designed to educate and empower healthcare providers with advanced obesity medicine knowledge. Together, we can help our patients achieve better health outcomes and discover the resilience needed to meet today’s health challenges.

To learn more about OMA or to become a member, visit: www.obesitymedicine.org.

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA, Diplomate, American Board of Obesity Medicine, is the President of the Obesity Medicine Association. He is board-certified in internal medicine, pediatrics and obesity medicine. Dr. Primack has been named “Top Doctor” by Phoenix Magazine since 2008. He is also the author of the book, “Chasing Diets.”