As we’ve all read ad nauseam over the last nearly-two years, the pandemic has changed us forever. One of the most unwelcome and pervasive physical changes has been the “quarantine 19,” a common way to refer to pandemic weight gain.

An APA Stress in America survey found 42% of U.S. adults reported undesired weight gain since the start of the pandemic, with an average gain of 29 pounds. Globally, 36% of people gained weight during the pandemic. Of those that gained weight, 71% gained more than five pounds.

According to the CDC’s longitudinal trends in body mass index (BMI), during March–November 2020, persons with moderate or severe obesity gained on average 1.0 and 1.2 pounds per month, respectively. Weight gain at this rate over 6 months is estimated to result in 6.1 and 7.3 pounds, respectively, compared with 2.7 pounds in a person with healthy weight.

What fueled this widespread weight gain? Disruptions to routines: changes in stress, sedentariness, screen time, sleep, and sustenance.

We must pay close attention to the attitudinal and behavioral segments emerging. Everyone feels differently about weight, weight gain, and health—some welcome interventions while others bristle at them. It’s our job to meet people where they are with what matters most to them.

Mindset: “It is what it is, and I love myself anyway.”

With a sense of normalcy slowly returning, diet culture has emerged in full force, which can put pressure on people to surface from the pandemic with a new, svelte body. But a strong contingent of consumers isn’t responding. In fact, they’re pushing for more size inclusivity and redefinition of what is an “ideal” body. With body positivity and self-love at the center, this cohort appreciates and acknowledges the diversity of body sizes and shapes that exist in the world… and they subscribe to the belief that you can achieve a level of health at all sizes.

Mindset: “I want to get healthy again.”

This individual emphasizes health over weight, so a more comprehensive picture of wellness will align with their values and beliefs. For example, foster comprehensive wellness that rounds out complementary fit-for-you therapy. Combine a tailored brand experience with custom motivational programs that will stand alone in ease and reduce friction. Focusing on all factors that drive health—not simply the number on the scale—can reduce some of the stigma that comes with emphasizing weight or BMI.

From the standpoint of healthcare communicators, the red thread across these two mindsets is that we want to improve health regardless of the number on the scale. And so, when it comes to designing marketing, communications, or other interventions for people who have gained pandemic weight, keep these tenets of success in mind.

  • Lead with empathy. Weight gain is about more than a number on a scale, and often it comes with a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. Remind people that weight gain is a normal response to abnormal circumstances, and that many factors are stacked against them when it comes to maintaining one’s weight. Reinforce their decisions to move toward health, whatever that looks like for them. Offer encouragement and praise generously throughout your messaging.

  • Start with realistic targets that are sustainable as goals. What’s the smallest change you can help someone make that creates the least amount of friction within their routine? Start there. When people make small changes, they’re more likely to succeed and that gives them the confidence to set more goals. Even a 5% weight loss for a person weighing 220 pounds can be clinically significant in terms of improving weight-related comorbidities.

  • Establish the right motivation, punctuated with the right context. Remember that motivation is a leaky bucket, and we need to help people constantly refill their bucket of motivation. We can do that with implementation intentions or other habit-creating nudges. But equally important is context—how can we create an environment for success? Whether that’s through bespoke educational content or the ability to track and trend their own data or just-in-time interactions designed to keep them on track.

About the Author:

 Carolyn Stephenson is EVP of Strategy for Syneos Health Communications. Her unique healthcare perspective is complemented by nearly 20 years of strategy expertise across sectors as varied as retail, financial services and higher education. She has built nationally recognized branding, digital, content and commerce programs for brands like JPMorgan Chase, Nationwide Insurance, EXPRESS, as well as on the agency side with Ologie and SBC Advertising. Her work has been spotlighted in industry publications like Mobile Commerce Daily, Mobile Marketer, and even featured on an NBC reality television show (Fashion Star). But her passion for healthcare is palpable: she’s also a Certified Hormone Specialist and a Precision Nutrition Coach.