The Weight of Oneself

Debunking the Quarantine Weight Gain Meme

Weight talk can be hazardous to one’s mental health. Right now, we hear a lot of it in connection with the coronavirus lockdown. But perhaps it’s utterly pointless. Because the folks who make digital scales at Withings tell us they can see little evidence of excessive quarantine weight gain right now. The company released an analysis on Friday that showed Americans gaining an average of 0.21 pounds (95 grams) between March and April this year.

That’s virtually indistinguishable from the 0.19 pounds they gained in the same period last year. Most people in this sample (63 percent) haven’t gained a single pound.

A Skewed Sample?

Of course, this is a convenience sample of people who own wireless digital scales. No one suggests that they are representative of the entire population. They are a self-selected sample of people who plunked down at least $60 for one of these fancy scales. They are more likely to be in their 40s, live in urban areas, and are somewhat mindful of health. But the folks at Withings, who know their customer base, caution against assuming they are super fit or super slim. Some people buy them because they have an issue with weight. Others buy them for precisely the opposite reason.

One thing we do know is that when people are weighing themselves regularly, they are less likely to gain weight.

A Global View

The Withings dataset gives us a view from around the world. The experiences of people in different countries varies a bit, but the big picture was not terribly different. With an average gain of 0.55 pounds, users in China saw the biggest change. Italy and Germany were very similar with average gains of 0.42 and 0.41 pounds respectively. The number in the U.K. was 0.35 pounds. And finally, results in France were the same as the U.S., with an average of 0.19 pounds gained.

Other Insights

Withings reports much more variation in physical activity than in weight in different geographies. These data come from activity trackers and show a big drop (56 percent) in the Hubei province of China, where the pandemic started. Average daily steps were down 28 percent in Italy and 27 percent in France.

The U.S. and the U.K. had much more modest reduction in daily steps, seven and eight percent respectively. However, Germans actually increased their activity levels by one percent during the lockdown. Likewise, some more rural states in the U.S. (e.g., Indiana and West Virginia) saw increases.

Fitbit has also published data on physical activity. Fitbit users are yet another convenience sample, so it’s no surprise that activity patterns from its users are a little different. For example, German Fitbit users haven’t stepped up their activity, even though they’ve had less drop than folks in other countries.

Finally, it’s worth noting that people seem to be getting a bit more sleep during the lockdown – anywhere from eight to eighteen minutes more in different countries.

Hasty, False Assumptions

We will eventually have more representative data than what we’re seeing in these convenience samples. Nonetheless, it’s clear enough that assumptions about quarantine weight gain are quite likely to be wrong. And given some of the indicators about the impact of this pandemic on mental health, we’re pretty sure that all this weight talk will do more harm than good.

The last thing we need is another source of anxiety.

Click here for the report from Withings and here for further perspective from the Washington Post.

The Weight of Oneself, photograph © Dennis Jarvis / flickr

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May 5, 2020

One Response to “Debunking the Quarantine Weight Gain Meme”

  1. May 09, 2020 at 2:06 pm, Valerie said:

    .”..we’re pretty sure that all this weight talk will do more harm than good.
    The last thing we need is another source of anxiety.”

    So, what do you suggest we do when we worry our clothes are getting tighter? Pretend we don’t notice? Keep it a secret?