A person steps onto a scale to view their weight. A strand of yellow measuring tape lies next to the scale.
You might quickly face disappointment if you aim for big changes in a short period. Strive for small, likely successes in your weight loss battle. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Some call it the COVID-19 … pounds, that is.

If you have gained some weight during the past year or so, you’re not alone.

The combination of more time spent at home, high stress levels and disrupted routines has resulted in unexpected weight gain for many.

“I would say the majority of people I have talked to have gained weight,” said Kristi Veltkamp, a Spectrum Health registered dietitian.

Samantha Johnson, a Spectrum Health athletic trainer, agreed: “You create all new habits when your life changes, especially when you can’t go and do the things you enjoy doing.”

The good news is that those bad habits can be broken.

“If you did develop some bad habits, now is a good time to try to break them,” Johnson said. “And if you have good, healthy habits, then stick with them.

“It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, you have to start sometime,” she said. “Remember that you’re building new habits and that takes time. You have to be your own biggest cheerleader.”

Veltkamp and Johnson offered some tips to help in this battle.

Start now, but start slow

The trap of “starting tomorrow” is always a bad one, Veltkamp said. It’s better to take one small step now.

“The misconception is that in order to lose weight it’s an all-or-nothing process—you’re either super strict or completely loosey-goosey,” Veltkamp said. “People who are successful in losing weight and keeping it off are those who make lifestyle changes.”

You’re setting yourself up for failure if you try to make those changes all at once, Veltkamp said.

“Pick one or two things that you want to focus on this week,” she said.

If that’s eating a healthy breakfast, then find some nutrient-packed options you like. If that’s oatmeal, then prepare some overnight oats the night before so they’re ready to grab and eat in the morning, she said.

She suggests transforming one meal and one snack at a time.

The same goes for exercise, according to Johnson.

“Plan what you want to do and set a goal,” Johnson said. “Then set one small goal at a time to achieve that.”

Remember that bad habits formed over months of the pandemic, and maybe even years before that, Johnson said.

“It’s important to take little steps to form new ones,” she said.

Those goals might be as simple as getting up from your desk a few more times during the day or standing up during a conference call. You burn more calories standing than sitting, she said.

If you’re not exercising at all right now, focus on working out once a week and build from there. Don’t try to set a goal of three times a week right from the start.

Try habit stacking

Johnson recommends a technique she calls habit stacking—using one firmly established habit in your life to help set another one.

Want to start a habit of exercising daily? After you brush your teeth each morning, lay out your exercise clothes and shoes where you’ll see them.

“Then the clothes are there and, after you’re done working, you’re going to see them,” she said. “It gives you that visual trigger that your workout clothes are ready to go. That trigger can really help people to say, ‘I need to go do this.’”

Build helpful routines

Create a routine that helps you prevent emotional eating and mindless snacking.

Working from home has created new challenges for healthy eating, Veltkamp said. Having easy access to the pantry and refrigerator all day means eating could become something you do as a break during the day.

Some people start work early and then they’re busy all day, which means they wait until the end of the day to eat—and then they eat a lot because, at that point, they’re starving.

“Make sure you’re eating well throughout the day,” she said. “If you skip meals, your hunger hormones skyrocket and you are constantly feeling hungry and it’s never enough food. We do definitely confuse hunger and cravings, so the first question to ask yourself is, ‘Am I hungry or am I just craving something?’”

The secret? Have healthy meals and snacks ready throughout the day.

“Come up with a routine—whatever works for you,” Veltkamp said. “That can be a set lunch break or maybe times for snacks throughout the day so you’re not constantly grazing.”

You can even set timers and technology to remind you to stick to your routine.

Also, make sure healthy food is readily available in your home so you’re not tempted by junk foods, she said.

You’ll also need a plan to combat emotional eating.

Identify those times when you’re most vulnerable to eating, even if you’re not actually hungry.

Then create a “reaction list” of things you can do in those moments other than eat, Veltkamp said. This might include reading books, doing puzzles, playing games on your phone or—better still—going for a walk.

It’s also important to deal with the root of what’s driving you to eat emotionally.

“You can only distract for so long,” Veltkamp said. “And you have to deal with the stress.”

Tactics that have worked for her patients include journaling, counseling, talking with a friend, deep breathing and meditation.

Find something you love

Many people think that eating healthy and exercising regularly must be torture. But you can find ways to build a healthy lifestyle with things you love, Veltkamp and Johnson said.

“It’s all about what makes sense for you,” Johnson said. “It’s not, ‘This is what everyone needs to do.’ You don’t have to be miserable. Do some soul searching and find what’s going to bring you joy.”

The same goes for food, Veltkamp said.

If you want dessert, make a plan for what you’re going to have and then enjoy it. Eat healthy for the rest of the day.

“It just becomes easier to continue healthy eating if you still allow yourself to have some treats now and then,” she said. “It’s creating that lifestyle.”

Don’t beat yourself up

Shame can be a big enemy to weight-loss success, Veltkamp said.

“I talk with a lot of people who say, ‘I know better. I have no self-control. I have tried and failed so many times. I have no willpower,’” Veltkamp said.

Don’t listen to those voices, she said. Remember there are many factors that go into what we eat and our weight—psychological, emotional, genetic, health, hormones, Veltkamp said.

“There’s always hope,” she said.

If you don’t meet a fitness goal, simply reassess, Johnson said.

“Once you set your goals, remember that it’s fluid,” Johnson said. “Adjusting your goals does not mean you are failing. Even if you miss a day, that’s not failure.

“Just say, ‘I didn’t do it today, but I’m going to do it tomorrow,’” she said.

Ultimately, learn to identify your inspiration—and let that guide you.

“Find whatever it is that’s going to encourage you to achieve those goals,” Johnson said.