COVID Made Them Healthier

Here are some people who shaped up during the shutdown.
pandemic workout wellness mariana

The call for help came in a Facebook post. Anxious, overwhelmed with homeschooling her kids and suddenly jobless, 40-year-old Mariana Perez knew she had to do something.

“I was arguing with my husband and screaming at my kids,” she says. “I was always stressing out.”

So Perez posted: “I’m looking for a workout partner.”

Marisol Brambila, a former work colleague and Facebook friend, answered the call. Ever since, the two have been meeting up early three times a week in Curtis Park. She keeps the equipment in the trunk of her car: hand weights, jump ropes, a medicine ball, resistance bands, and even a kettlebell for supercharged squats. Together they sweat it out for two hours.

Perez is among an apparent minority of adults who bucked pandemic trends and used the unprecedented moment to adopt what they hope are healthier habits to last a lifetime.

For so many, COVID-19 and shelter-in-place guidelines—and the related stress they brought on—led to a cascade of negative physical and mental health effects, from depression and lack of sleep to binge eating and drinking and too little regular exercise. One study of 269 adults found that during the lockdown between Feb. 1 and June 1, 2020, people gained 1.8 pounds per month and decreased their daily steps.

The American Psychological Association found that 42 percent of adults surveyed said they’d gained too much weight and on average reported gaining 29 pounds. And a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that one in four adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.

The research jibes with what Amber Ramage, UC Davis assistant clinical professor and family nurse practitioner at the UC Davis Health Elk Grove Clinic, has witnessed in her practice.

“The majority of patients gained weight or let their health go a little bit,” she says. “I had one patient who was diagnosed with breast cancer because she had put off her breast imaging because of the pandemic. It allowed her cancer to progress. We are seeing that with patients across the board. Now, a lot of people are coming in and instead of one problem they have 10 problems.”

But Ramage has seen others who are thriving.

“They took it as an opportunity to reassess what their goals were and how they were going to meet them,” she says. “I had one patient who lost 30 pounds or more.”

Sacramento personal training and health coach Jenni Pottebaum, Ph.D., says business closures and virtual work opportunities led people to realize how much more free time and freedom they had.

“For some, it was ‘Hey, I’m not driving anymore or wasting time doing nonessential, time-consuming things, so I’m going to focus on doing the things that are necessary and the things I have been putting on hold,’” she says. “They realized they can work out.”

One of her clients, Patti Decker, had been an avid triathlete in her 30s, but largely neglected her health and fitness in the 20 years since due to various stressors and a broken leg. Her data analyst job required at least an hour of commuting, then sitting for eight hours or more per day. The result was significant weight gain.

“I didn’t know how to stay active,” says Decker, 56. “I did nothing. I couldn’t run at all. My stability was so bad. I was in so much pain.”

The pandemic freed up time, and with Pottebaum’s guidance she quit drinking soda, started using the MyFitnessPal app to monitor her diet, and adopted a rigorous workout schedule, both virtually and in person.

“Last fall, I joined Jenni’s’ triathlon training team,” she says. “I lost 40 pounds. I have done two Olympic-distance triathlons in the last month and one sprint triathlon.”

The workouts have redefined her muscles, reduced her stress and built her confidence. “I am determined that this going to continue,” says Decker. “It’s something I am super proud of accomplishing because it’s been such hard work.”

Ramage encourages her patients to use the SMART Goals model for lifestyle change. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Based. “If they haven’t exercised at all, I suggest do it one day a week, and when the habit is ingrained, move it up to two days, then three,” she says. “If they try to stick with it, they can reach that goal of five days.”

She also suggests working out with a buddy who can help keep you accountable. “And make time on your schedule so you can hold yourself accountable.”

Linda Dew-Hiersoux did just that.

At 60, she has always been fairly active, but over the years she suffered various ailments that curtailed her activities, caused weight gain and lack of mobility.

“I felt like a middle-aged, frumpy person,” she says.

Her job as pastor of The Table in Sacramento went online during the pandemic. Soon, her adult children, including her pregnant daughter-in-law, had moved back into her home. The family was now eating together—with a big emphasis on vegetables—and her daughter-in-law, a CrossFit trainer, set up a workout regimen outside with weights and bands and led the family effort.

The workouts, three to four times per week, have provided Dew-Hiersoux with functional fitness; the sprints build muscle and stamina; the air squats enable her to get out of the chair, and the ground-to-overhead weightlifting gives her the strength to pick up her new grandson.

“My clothes are fitting again,” she says. “I feel strong. I’m so grateful I can cry if I think about it too hard. I feel like a rock star.”

As an added bonus, she says, her husband has joined the workouts, too.

Pandemic restaurant closures forced Ned Butler into his own kitchen, a mostly unfamiliar place for the 67-year-old.

“COVID was a blessing. I hadn’t cooked since before my daughter went off to college in 2000,” says Butler, a marriage and family therapist in private practice. “My meals before the pandemic were cheese enchiladas, fish and chips and pizza. That was my holy trinity.”

Butler’s conversion was aided after he joined an Alzheimer’s disease study to track the impact of exercise and diet on brain health. He joined the study in January 2020 after his mother’s dementia diagnosis and just before COVID hit.

Soon, he began eating “copious amounts of kale” and other heart-healthy fare like Portuguese green soup, salmon, vegetables and hummus, most of which he prepares in his kitchen.

The Alzheimer’s study also taught him that his longtime yoga practice was great for strength and flexibility, but that he needed more cardiovascular exercise. So when his yoga studio shut down, he grabbed his bike. Now, he rides for 40 minutes on the American River Parkway each morning, monitoring his heart rate along the way.

“It keeps me honest,” he says. “I’m doing very well. I probably get 600 to 700 minutes a week of elevated heart rate.”

To round out the workouts and build upper-arm strength, he’s joined a climbing gym.

“I feel great,” he says. “I hope it’s sustainable. I have no doubt my diet will be better for good, and I am definitely now hooked on biking.”

Unlike those who found more time to spend on exercise or cook during the pandemic, 35-year-old Janna Perez just got busier. A veterinarian with practices in Natomas and Yuba City, Perez was working 60 to 80 hours a week, all while raising two young kids.

“The biggest thing is that I was overweight, and that was a scary thing about COVID, because it’s a risk factor if you get the virus,” says Perez (no relation to Mariana). “A lightbulb went off. I want to be here for my kids. I didn’t have any extra time to do it, but I realized it was a priority. You are only here for so long.”

Perez hired Pottebaum, the personal trainer and wellness coach. Using various digital apps, they track her diet, sleep, heart rate, calorie consumption and other useful data.

“She looks over all the things I eat—the good, the bad and ugly—and she helps me tweak it for the next week,” Perez says. “I was a diehard Starbucks fan. Every morning it was the macchiato and sandwiches. All the energy drinks. I had no idea how much salt and sugar I was eating.”

Perez also does two online exercise sessions and one in-person session with her trainer every week. She’s set up a mini-gym in her home, and does TRX, or total resistance exercises.

“I haven’t lost a lot of weight, but my body composition feels a million times different,” she says. “I had a big mom belly. It’s different now. I have definition in my shoulders and arms. I can do 16 real pushups, which I couldn’t do before we started.”

Maintenance is challenging, Perez admits, especially now that COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, and vacation time makes it too easy to get off track. But she relies on what she’s learned from coaching.

“If you want to establish habits, you have to create a routine and stick to it, whether good or bad,” she says. “To break a bad habit, you have to replace it with a different habit or routine and make that your new normal. It’s a mindset.”

Mariana Perez, for her part, says that while she hasn’t resolved all her pandemic-related challenges, she is on the right track now with her regular bootcamp-style workouts in Curtis Park.

“I am feeling better about myself,” she says. “I am better with my family and happier at home. I feel stronger. I feel better inside and out.”