“Pandemic pounds”—and fitness loss—are real

The term “pandemic pounds” had already been coined when Lauren Raine and colleagues reopened their lab at Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health to participants in August 2020.

Still, they were surprised by the big differences a few months of isolation made in the fitness levels of the children and adults they studied as part of a federal brain health research project.

“It had only been four to five months (of isolation) and people were drastically different,” Raine says.

She led a team of researchers in quantifying the results of a study published in Frontiers in Public Health that documented increases in the body mass index of groups of participants studied before and during work stoppages due to COVID, as well as decreases in their heart – vessel suitability.

“I don’t think we fully realized the impact” of the shutdown, when gyms were closed and even parks were marked with caution tape, said Raine, an assistant professor whose co-authors include Northeastern’s Arthur Kramer and Charles Hillman.

Lauren Raine, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Department of Medical Sciences in the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health. Photo by Matthew Moduno/Northeastern University

Steps taken to reduce people’s exposure to the novel coronavirus may have inadvertently reduced their physical activity levels to unhealthy levels, said Raine, who works in the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Department of Medical Sciences.

“People in the physical therapy department will tell you that if you stop exercising, you’ll see declines very quickly,” she says.

“But people in the general population might say, ‘What’s the harm if I sit for two weeks?'” Raine says. “It’s a big deal.”

Cardiovascular fitness, measured while exercising participants on a treadmill, showed that the level in older adults decreased by 30%. For children, the decline is even worse – 53%.

Her study compared the aerobic capacity and body mass index of 493 adults aged 65-80 before the pandemic with 100 adults in that age group during the pandemic.

All the children were located within an hour’s drive of Boston, while the adults were located in three locations in Boston, Kansas and Pittsburgh, Raine said.

Body mass index also increased in both age groups, she says.

In older people, it went from 29.5 to 31.3, which is “definitely an increase,” Rein says.

In children, BMI went from 18 to 19.3, but she says it’s difficult to assess the significance of this increase because of children’s rapid growth rates and changing body composition.

Worryingly, previous reports have shown that children in the heaviest weight categories appear to bear the brunt of stunting BMI gains, and “our data are consistent with that,” Raine says.

Ongoing collaborative research is measuring health outcomes for both age groups for National Institutes of Health-funded research on exercise and brain health.

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