The Inevitable Weight Gain Known as the ‘COVID 15’

The year 2020 was a difficult and unprecedented year for humans worldwide. We were mostly stuck inside, forced to change our work locations to our homes, if possible, wear masks, and socially distance from others for over a year. Once vibrant, recreational public places largely shut down such as COVID-19 swept across the globe impacting every community. The virus has caused millions worldwide to lose loved ones and created a new reality that the invisible is deadly and we should take it seriously.

I was fortunate enough to be in a position to work from home for the entirety of the COVID pandemic. This brought on many new challenges that many of us never thought we’d experience. We lost our workplace social interactions, learned to be our own IT departments, became more independent on our own culinary abilities, and had to be creative in our means for sustaining our physical fitness requirements. The U.S. Army Reserve moved to conducting our battle assemblies completely remote through the support of Microsoft Teams. This inevitably prevented leaders from the ability to provide 100% accountability through participation and observation of physical readiness training to the same degree that was accomplished previously with in-person unit training assemblies.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we all generally believed that we would have the virus under control within the first few weeks to perhaps a couple of months. This was a major over estimation of the reality of an airborne virus. What happened to me I think happened to a lot of Soldiers and Americans alike. Early on what we didn’t realize was that we were all starting to create bad habits that would end up lasting for a year or more. Happy hours were starting earlier in the day, became more frequent, and we were eating more convenient foods. These habits, that we all thought were temporary, spiraled into a year of a sedentary lifestyle. Several months into the pandemic, colleagues, Soldiers, and family members began joking about the “COVID 15”, a term used by college students who gain weight in their freshman year of college, the “Freshman 15” after their lives are changed drastically as they leave home and venture into new habits and lifestyles. The “15” represents 15 pounds of personal weight gain.

Unfortunately, I was a victim, like many, to the stressors and bad habit forming that were subsequent consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic I was an avid user of my local gym and was in relatively good shape. When my access to the gym was cutoff, my drive to workout was gone with the wind. As the pandemic raged on so did my loss of muscle mass and the increase in fat began to take hold. I gained 30 pounds of fat and was in the worst shape of my life. I was drinking beer every night, not a lot, but enough that it was adding superfluous amounts of calories without the necessary physical ability to “burn” them off. I had slipped into obesity within a relatively short amount of time. I became very unhappy with my physical appearance and constantly thought about how I would be received by my friends, Soldiers, and colleagues once we returned to work. When I looked in the mirror, I thought about the enemies of the United States staring back at me. I would ask myself, “would they fear me, this overweight, soft looking Soldier?” It never took more than a split second to emphatically answer “NO!”

As news of positive clinical trials results began to circulate and the hopes of approved vaccines becoming increasingly likely, I knew it was time to act fast, as I knew we would be able to return to work and it would be soon enough that I would be training young Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets. I decided it was time for drastic measures if I was going to get drastic results. My commander sent out a tentative date to return to in-person training and that we would all need to conduct height and weight. I was 250 pounds and well beyond my allowable weight limit and needed to make significant lifestyle changes.

On New Years’ Eve, I made a resolution plan for what I needed to do to be ready for my May 2021 height and weight. We were also told that we would be conducting the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) in June 2021 as part of our diagnostic to gauge where Soldier’s fitness readiness was as the Army seeks to implement the test as record in Spring 2022. Additionally, Cadet Summer Training (CST) was appearing to be on track for Spring 2022 and it was looking like I would rotate to Fort Knox, Ky., to train cadets in May 2021. Starting on January 1, 2021, I quit drinking alcohol and really anything other than water. Sparkling waters were my savior. I cut out almost all sugar and carbohydrates, and stuck to a high protein, fat, and green veggie diet. I began running and doing body weight exercises at least three days per week. Within the first month I had lost 18 pounds. I was feeling pretty good but, still had a way to go. Keeping to this diet and fitness routine, I had lost 43 pounds by April. No alcohol, no junk food, and a few runs per week.

Staying disciplined and focused on your goal isn’t easy. For me, keeping my attention occupied on a daily task was key. I really focused on keeping myself busy on what was in front of me. I have a fairly demanding job as a project manager at a consulting firm and this was a good distraction. However, in the past, this demand also made it easier to reward my hard work with a beer or some wine at the end of the day. I needed another task to demand that time when work was over. The routine of cooking dinner, hanging out with my daughter and watching the Portland Trail Blazers basketball game was synonymous with my old habits, all of which included a drink in my hand. While I waited for my spring term in grad school to begin, I picked up some home projects to fill my time in the evenings. Before I knew it, school, work, family, and home projects virtually occupied all of my time. I kept the diet up and workouts going in between all of it. By the time I showed up to in-person Battle Assembly in early May for my weigh in, I had lost 50 pounds and passed height and weight without needing to be taped for body composition. I was feeling great and shared with my fellow Soldiers what I had done to make such great progress. I really think this helped motivate a lot of them that had been feeling similar to how I had felt at the end of 2020. A few weeks later I flew to instruct Tactical Combat Casualty Care, or “T-triple-C” at Fort Knox for Cadet Summer Training.

After returning to my home station in Washington state, we conducted the ACFT for the first time in my career (diagnostic only). I surprised myself by doing quite well and easily passed all six events. The ACFT really validated my efforts and preparation that went into getting back into Soldier-Shape. This past year was valuable lesson to me and I hope for everyone. Bad habits are easy to fall into. Kicking those habits is very difficult and requires a lot of support. Without the help and support from my spouse, I would not have been successful. She allowed me the time to focus on different things to distract me from the bad habits and gave me the time to get those workouts in. In other words, goal setting is a team sport and we all need to be there to support each other through these hardships. We need empathy and we need to cheer on our Soldiers, not berate them for their failure. As the Army learns from this past year and we conduct our after-action reviews for 2020, let us remember that we can achieve anything if we stick together and support each other through the struggles.

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