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During Pandemic Year, Weight Gain, Drinking, Insomnia Spiked

Survey finds an increase in stress led to unhealthy behaviors

spinner image Close up legs of overweight woman checking her weight scales and drumbell, tape measure beside her.
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When the pandemic began, Sandra Tullock found herself putting on some pounds, drinking an extra glass of chardonnay in the evenings and having a hard time sleeping.

The 64-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, had had a bariatric bypass several years earlier and lost 100 pounds, so the weight gain and other issues were worrisome. She attributes the issues to anxiety over COVID-19.

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"I live alone and I didn't realize how much I missed not being able to be around my friends,” she says. “It took its toll."

Tullock is not alone. The COVID-19 pandemic is damaging the physical and psychological health of Americans, according to the latest American Psychological Association (APA) survey.

The survey, conducted in late February by the Harris Poll, found that many U.S. adults — particularly parents of children under 18, essential workers, young people, and Black and Hispanic people — have experienced undesired weight changes, are drinking more alcohol and aren't getting their desired amount of sleep.

"We've been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma and isolation that Americans are experiencing,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., APA's chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come.”

Among the survey's findings:

  • 61 percent of adults have experienced undesired weight changes
  • 67 percent are sleeping more or less than they want
  • 23 percent are drinking more alcohol, including 52 percent of parents with children 5 to 7 years old.

The survey found that younger adults are most likely to admit their mental health has worsened: 46 percent of Gen Zers, 33 percent of Gen Xers, 31 percent of millennials, 28 percent of boomers and 9 percent of the Silent Generation reported those struggles.

Jennifer Kelly, president of the APA, noted that more support is needed for Black and Hispanic individuals, essential workers and parents who are experiencing a disproportionate share of pandemic stress.

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"We must do more to support communities of color, essential workers and parents as they continue to cope with the demands of the pandemic and start to show the physical consequences of prolonged stress,” she said.

Racial disparites noted

It's not surprising that people were negatively affected by the pandemic, particularly when it comes to weight gain, says David Buchin, M.D., the director of bariatric surgery at Northwell Health Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York.

"Everyone was stressed out and they turned to comfort foods,” he says. In addition, boredom, a lack of physical activity, and being stuck at home with easy access to the pantry and refrigerator didn't help.

The survey found Hispanic people were most likely to experience unintended physical changes during the pandemic:

  • 71 percent of Hispanics experienced weight changes, compared with Blacks at 64 percent, whites at 58 percent and Asians at 54 percent
  • 78 percent of Hispanics were having trouble with sleep, compared with Blacks at 76 percent, whites at 63 percent and Asians at 61 percent
  • 87 percent of Hispanics experienced a change in physical activity levels, compared with Blacks at 84 percent, Asians at 81 percent and whites at 79 percent.

None of this is news to Brian Benavidez, 52, of Brooklyn, New York, who says the strain caused by the pandemic affected his sleep. Worries about his family's health, his job, and his son's schooling and socialization prevented him from falling asleep, and he would wake up during the night. “All those factors combined with unbelievably high levels of stress and it was difficult to get a good night's sleep,” he says.

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Courtesy Brian Benavidez

In addition, he went from consuming half a beer a week to regular wine, beer and cocktail consumption several days a week. “It was stress and also boredom,” he says.

He managed not to gain weight, though, and instead spent his extra quarantine time exercising and even doing yoga for the first time in his life.

After his struggles with sleep, Benavidez developed strategies to improve his dozing hours, including not watching the news regularly, using a sleep mask and listening to podcasts to help him nod off. His alcohol consumption has tapered off, but not to pre-pandemic levels.

Tullock is also getting back on track, eating better and working with a trainer to exercise more. She's also been vaccinated, which has helped ease her stress levels.

"I feel like we are coming out of it,” she says. “I feel a little bit safer."

5 tips for getting back on track

People may have developed bad habits during the pandemic year, says David Buchin, M.D., who specializes in bariatric surgery. Here are some ways to get back on track:

1. Keep to a schedule. Wake up at a similar time and go to bed at a similar time. If you are working remotely, try to act as if you are in the office for your workday.

2. Stop snacking. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner but don't visit the refrigerator or pantry in between.

3. Get dressed every day. Even if you work from home now, don't stay in your pajamas.

4. Increase physical activity. If the gym is closed, there are plenty of online workout videos and programs — both free and at low cost — to try at home for any fitness level.

5. Try some friendly competition. Bunchin and his coworkers are competing to see who can lose the highest percentage of body fat in three months.

Michelle R. Davis joined AARP as a writer/editor/producer in 2020 and oversees the Home & Family section of Previously, she was the seniorwriter and social media strategist for EdWeek Market Brief and a senior correspondent at Education Week. She also spent five years as a regional correspondent in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, covering Congress and the White House. 

Peter Urban is a contributing writer and editor who focuses on health news. Urban spent two decades working as a correspondent in Washington, D.C., for daily newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, California and Arkansas, including a stint as Washington bureau chief for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His freelance work has appeared in Scientific American, Bloomberg Government and

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