As vaccines roll out, more people want a ‘post-pandemic body,’ experts say. But is it healthy?

Lindsey Appiah had a tough time staying in shape during the pandemic.

With gyms shuttered and fewer opportunities to walk around while working from home, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney, who lost 70 pounds over the last four years, saw her strict fitness regimen fall by the wayside. As a result, she gained about 15 pounds during the pandemic.

“When you lose a lot of weight, having been overweight for a long time, there’s always this fear in the back of your head of gaining weight back,” Appiah said. “It’s almost like a dread. It’s almost like this thing chasing you.”

So when Appiah started noticing a growing number of social media posts about achieving a “post-pandemic body” — or, getting fit for when the world returns to normal — she says it struck a nerve.

“Do we really need to revert back to something that wasn’t even a healthy way of thinking to begin with?” she said. “Is that what we’re going to do? It just felt really wrong to me.”

Appiah isn’t the only person feeling pressure to lose weight. As vaccines have rolled out across the country, trainers say they’ve seen significant increases in clients aiming to look their best by the time the world fully reopens.

Though fitness and mental health professionals agree a healthy lifestyle is a worthy goal, they caution against quick physical transformations — especially after a year that was traumatic for so many.

With COVID-19 vaccines getting rolled out across the country, trainers and gym owners say they've seen significant increases in clients aiming to look their best by the time the world fully reopens.

Vaccines bring hope, but also pressure

January is usually the busiest time of the year for Los Angeles-based personal trainer Benjamin Stone. He typically gets an influx of new clients motivated by their New Year’s resolutions.

But as coronavirus cases surged in his area at the start of 2021, the calls from new clients never came.

“It was really strange,” he said. “Those New Year’s resolutions didn’t happen, and it’s almost like a pandemic resolution now. It’s like, three months later, now I’m getting all the calls.”

As cases declined and vaccines started rolling out, Stone’s new client inquiries increased five-fold from January to March, with many saying they want to get in shape by the time the pandemic ends.

Gabbi Berkow — a dietitian, exercise physiologist, personal trainer and Pilates instructor in New York City — has also seen an uptick. One week in March, she received double the amount of new client inquiries compared to a pre-pandemic week.

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“There’s definitely the goal of looking lean and toned in summer clothes as we’re coming closer to summer and as the pandemic is lessening,” she said.

For some, getting in shape is about more than just looks. Kaitlin McCarthy, a senior at Boston College, says the trend has been a way for her and her peers to cope with time and opportunities lost to the pandemic.

“I look back at photos of myself (before the pandemic), and I’m kind of mourning that I’ve lost that,” said McCarthy, who gained weight in 2020, just like 71 million other Americans according to a December survey. “I think it’s this manifestation of loss that makes people want to lose more weight.”

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McCarthy said all her friends kick off this semester on diets or health kicks.

“It’s OK that people weren’t productive and if you just got through this year and you didn’t lose 40 pounds or get your dream body or work out every single day with the time that you had,” she said. “It’s OK that you just got through the day.”

‘Post-pandemic body’ carries mental stress

Though the “post-pandemic body” is about physique, it can have mental health ramifications, therapists say.

Karin Schwartz, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist, said 90 to 100% of her clients who struggle with eating disorders have felt pressure to lose weight in anticipation of post-pandemic life. That pressure has also impacted about half of her clients who don’t struggle with eating disorders, she said.

“People really strive to be the best version of themselves, especially when they come out of lockdown, and they think that means being thinner,” she said, “which isn’t necessarily meaning that they’re going to be happier or healthier.”

Jane Teixeira, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, California, said the prospect of seeing people after the pandemic has heightened body image issues for her clients.

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“It can be that corresponding panic of, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting to see people this soon,’ or maybe there’s some shame associated with how our bodies have changed in this past year that starts to creep up,” she said. “All of that kind of creates this perfect storm.”

Teixeira encourages everyone to be gentle with themselves as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic.

“Use this as an opportunity to really celebrate your body and all the things that it does for us on an everyday basis,” she said. “Honor that relationship with it.”

How to get healthier the right way

It’s certainly possible to get in shape the healthy way, without succumbing to “post-pandemic body” pressure. Here are tips trainers recommend:

  1. Start slow. “You can’t just jump right back into working out six, seven days a week like you did in the beginning,” said Noam Tamir, founder and CEO of the New York City gym TS Fitness. “You’ll burn yourself out, you can get injured, you can stunt your progress, because you’re just doing too much.”
  2. Get plenty of sleep and water. “If you’re not considering those pieces,” said Los Angeles-based personal trainer Jason Zenga, “then it’s pretty hard to make the right food choices, and it’s pretty hard to have the energy to do any type of workout.”
  3. Check in with how you feel. “It’s also a great time to journal and talk about how you’re feeling,” said Tamir. “Like, ‘I’m energized,’ or, ‘Today I’m really beat up, and I’m really tired.’ “
  4. Understand that lasting results take time. “Slow and steady wins the weight loss race,” said Berkow. “The slower you lose weight, the more sustainable it’ll be. Don’t wait until the last minute, and focus on making healthy lifestyle changes instead of a crash diet or starving yourself to fit in a bikini.”
  5. Accept that everybody’s journey is unique. “Everyone went through something different,” said Berkow. “Is it possible, and may it be healthy to lose body fat and increase muscle tone for the summer, so you feel better about yourself and feel confident in how you look? Yes, absolutely. But, we’ve been through a really, really hard year. I would not recommend comparing your journey to anyone else’s.”

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