Pedestrians cross a street in downtown Los Angeles, California. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DAVID SWANSON
Pedestrians cross a street in downtown Los Angeles, California. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DAVID SWANSON

Jesse Weigel’s jeans barely buttoned and his dress pants were off limits. But he did not view his pandemic doughnut habit as a crisis until his four-year-old had to extract him from a once-favourite shirt that bound his arms like sausage casing.

“She’s actually hanging off my collar trying to get my shirt off,” Weigel, a 35-year-old computer-systems head engineer, recalled from his home in Steubenville, Ohio. “The only way to do it was to rip it off my arms.”

Americans who soothed themselves with calorie-laden comfort foods are frantically trying to slim down for the perfect office bod. Gym memberships are up, personal trainers are booked and digital subscriptions to WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, were 16% higher at the end of the first quarter from a year earlier.

The pandemic-fuelled isolation and anxiety meant more eating and less activity in a country where four in 10 adults are already obese, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In all, 42% of the population gained unwanted weight, averaging 13kg, according to the American Psychology Association’s annual stress survey. As Covid-19 swept the globe, obesity was among the conditions that put infected people at greater risk.

Some companies saw opportunity in what was labelled on social media as #Quarantine15 and #PandemicPounds. Tracking virus outbreaks alongside stay-at-home restrictions, Hershey pushed S’mores, the gooey confections of chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers.

“What more perfect occasion than to share S’mores with the family over the backyard barbecue?” Michele Buck, the company’s chair, president and CEO, said at the May 17 annual general meeting. “We altered our media and increased media in those markets where S’mores was starting to increase in consumption.”

Even executives for Ralph Lauren — a company built on a fantasy of exclusive lifestyles, with clothing paraded by impossibly slim models — relished how its elasticated denim accommodated customers’ new curves.

They started saying, ‘I want to look like I’m still competitive and I can handle my own’
Adam Dare, Own Your Fitness founder

“More comfort, stretch, is playing right into the lifestyles or the Covid-19 weight gain,” Jane Nielsen, the COO and CFO, said in a June 2020 call with Evercore ISI Research. She, too, had put on weight, she said.

All that heft creates a minor crisis for employees re-entering human society.

From late May, 12% of Manhattan office workers had returned at least part time, according to a June survey by the Partnership for New York City, a research and advocacy group. Businesses surveyed expect that figure to reach 62% by end-September.

In recent weeks, new clients of Own Your Fitness, a personal training service in Manhattan and Jersey City, New Jersey, have said they want not only to lose the kilograms, but also to tune up for a corporate environment, according to founder Adam Dare.

“They started saying, ‘I want to look like I’m still competitive and I can handle my own,’” said Dare, who conducts in-person and virtual sessions.

The downfall of Saumil Kapadia, a banking COO from Jersey City, was the aroma of his wife’s baking, luring him far too often from his bedroom workspace into the kitchen. Banana bread was a gateway to chips and croissants from neighbourhood shops.

Now he is doing 30-minute sessions with Dare, including running, lunges, squats and push-ups, working towards the day when he can slip into office clothes.

“Going back to work, you’re going to have two sets of people — one who completely transformed and others who have let it go,” Kapadia said. “I want to be back where I was before the pandemic.”

Binge eating

In suburban Atlanta, Carolyn O’Neil, a dietitian, author and onetime CNN correspondent, watched a friend lose 25kg by walking when his gym closed. Meanwhile, O’Neil — first to acknowledge that she knows better — went up a dress size and then some.

“The binge TV-watching and the binge eating went hand in hand,” said O’Neil. “You didn’t have to go to the office tomorrow, so you were rebelling against the world with another episode of Ozark.”

The weight came off when she cut portions and traded wine and cocktails for fruit-infused water. “Passive exercise” is now routine: push-ups in a standing position against a kitchen counter, putting away household items immediately rather than piling them near stairways for later.

“Don’t be hard on yourself and don’t worry about one pound up, one pound down,” she said. “Look at changes that are going in the wrong direction.”

Countrywide, more than 500 people have joined a free fasting programme, via text, from Fairview, Texas-based Tolleson Health advisers. The approach — including tips and links to 30- to 60-second videos — appeals particularly to those who realised that new weight puts them at risk of early death, according to company founder Shawn Tolleson, a 33-year-old retired pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers.

Joined gym

“I’m not selling you anything,” Tolleson said. “It’s better than free. I’m saving you lots of money on food and increasing your productivity because you’re not forming your day about these three meals that you don’t have to eat.”

Weigel, the Ohio dad who was trapped in his dress shirt, joined a gym after his daughter described him as “long and fat” to a woman at church. “I think she meant ‘tall and strong’,” Weigel said.

The sauna is bringing relief to his ankles — aching and swollen, he said, from hauling the extra weight. Typically 91-95kg, he shot up to 108kg, and since has dropped 2.7kg. An in-person work event is coming up this month, and after that, travel to conferences. He prepared by spending $500 on larger-size clothing.

“I have three dress shirts right now that fit me,” he said. “Two pairs of dress pants.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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