You’ve probably heard of the “Freshman 15,” the tendency for a first year college student to gain 15 pounds of body fat due to making poor food and drink (mostly drink) choices in their first year away from home.
The Quarantine 15 is just as real a phenomenon, and it’s getting all of us, the fit and non-fit alike. I’ve noticed even my most disciplined fitness friends are packing some extra mass, and I’m seeing the same on my own body, despite having been pretty good on food and exercise.
What’s driving this quarantine mass? Aside from predictable things like stress, there’s a big component that most people are missing because it’s malfunctioning quietly in the background — incidental calories.
I’ll use myself as an example. Pre-Covid, I was going to my local Aikido dojo 3 times a week.
Me taking a high fall during practice, in the ancient before-times.
Practice was an hour long, at moderate intensity, burning roughly 350 Calories. So that’s about 1000 Calories a week that I’m missing out on now that the dojo is closed. But hey, no problem, I’ve replaced Aikido with a daily walk which burns about the same amount of Calories per week. I should be good right?
What I’ve forgotten in this calculation is the incidental Calories that come along with going to Aikido. Getting to the dojo required packing up my gear, walking through the parking lot, changing into my uniform, helping take out the mats, and afterwards, cleaning up the mats, chatting with the sensei, walking back through the parking lot, driving home, and so on. This isn’t a large number of Calories. Perhaps 20.
In contrast, what are the steps that I need to do before my daily walk?
1. Stand up
2. Walk out of the door
I’ve lost all those incidental calories that came from all the before and after of Aikido.
Now consider that I haven’t just stopped going to Aikido. I’ve stopped taking my daughter to music class (she does it online now) and to parkour class on Saturday mornings. I’ve stopped driving her around to birthday parties and sleepovers, commuting to work meetings, going on bird-watching walks, window shopping, and playing shows with my band. All that shuffling back and forth is a lot of 20-calorie-blocks. I estimate about 1000 calories a week. If you were to not change anything about your eating and just lose the incidental 1000 calories a week, by the end of the month you would gain about 1.2 pounds of body fat. Multiply by 10-12 months and you’re starting to see where the “15” in Quarantine 15 can come from, even for someone who’s not giving in to stress eating and drinking!
And here’s the real kicker. When you’re moving around town, going between your different commitments, you’re not eating. Each minute of the day that you can’t spend eating (because you’re busy) is an easy win for controlling food intake. When you spend most of the day at home, it’s easy to graze and slowly consume phantom calories that don’t even register when you think back to what you consumed. And even if you’re being good and not snacking all day, you’re spending mental energy resisting which you never needed before when you were running around town with things to do. Depleted mental energy will always come back to bite you, either through poor food choices or skipped exercise because you need to just sit and chill with passive entertainment for a while.
The result is that quarantine tilts the playing field against you, and day by day you accumulate more Calories on your body than you intended.
Look at all those incidental calories being burned! And not a single person is eating!
What to do about it? There are 3 good solutions.
Once you know that you’ve got an extra 1000 incidental Calories a week missing from your life, you can take action on the nutrition side. The simplest way is to reduce portion size. For example, if you eat 3 meals a day (21 meals a week) you’d need to cut about 50 Calories from each meal to account for lost incidental Calories.
That’s very manageable. Here are some options:
- Instead of two pieces of bacon at breakfast, you’d have one.
- Instead of eating a whole apple for a snack, eat half and save the other half for the next snack.
- Instead of your usual sandwich, you could have an open-faced sandwich with just one slice of bread.
- Instead of a bowl of rice filled to the top, you’d fill the bowl halfway.
These kinds of changes don’t make you feel deprived, or force you to eat differently. Think about removing about 50 Calories out of every meal and you’ll start racking up wins against the Quarantine 15.
If you’re exercising 3-5 times a week, you could make up for 1000 lost incidental Calories by doubling the length of your session, or working twice as hard. Be careful not to over-extend and create so much extra stress that you need to take longer breaks between exercise days, or burn out of exercise altogether.
Make opportunities to start reclaiming incidental calories. Keep the house extra tidy. Wash the car. Spend more time in the garden. Complete a physical project you’ve been meaning to get done. Not only does this keep you moving, it keeps you busy, and a busy person is a person who’s not ingesting random caloric inputs all day long.
Of course, you can do all three of these things synergistically, which makes it much more likely that you’ll cover your incidental Calories and then some, without it feeling like a grind.
Here’s what not to do:
Don’t look at the Quarantine 15 as inevitable. Don’t get into a negative pattern where you blame being out of shape on lockdowns and stress. Don’t let yourself get too far gone by promising that once this is over you’ll restart your fitness efforts. The deeper the hole you dig yourself, the longer and harder it is to get out. The smarter play is to stop digging now, and start implementing a hybrid of reduced portions and more activity.
You’ve got this!
Covid19 has kicked our butts for way too long. It’s time to start getting some wins for your mind and body. As we move into the final months of the virus, start paring down the Quarantine 15 to the Quarantine 10, 5, and beyond. All your favorite activities that keep you busy will be back soon, and you’ll be there to meet them in good mental and physical shape!
Quarantine 15 ⇢ Quarantine Lean and Mean!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder