How the Fitness Industry is Making Money Off Our Covid Weight Gain Insecurities

fitness covid pressure

Your body got you through Covid and a year and a half of uncertainty — why not give it a break?

The country is slowly emerging from the pandemic, and many of us are quickly diving back into our old routines. For some of us, that means sorting through a closet full of jeans, summer dresses, and old swimsuits that — after months of lockdown — may feel a bit…tight. 

And for good reason: Covid-19 has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, forced millions out of work, and fundamentally disrupted our way of life. If you turned to chips or ice cream, spent more time on the couch, or stopped prioritizing “getting your steps in” to cope with the stress of the past year, you’re not alone. One study suggests that adults under shelter-in-place orders gained nearly two pounds a month.

And the diet and fitness industries are poised to pounce on the anxieties of those who did gain weight, making for an alarming trend. 

Gyms and weight-loss programs are making a big push to tempt consumers back, says Jenna Drenten, a professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago. Most gyms had to close their doors at some point in 2020, losing customers in the process. And according to a market research firm, the U.S. diet industry lost 21 percent of its value in 2020. 

To make up for that loss, those industries are now “really playing into people’s insecurities,” says Kerry O’Grady, who teaches public relations at Georgetown and acts as a liaison for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). 

The fitness and diet sectors are now pumping big money into ads urging us to get “back on the bandwagon” and start setting bodily goals, Drenten said. Take this WW International (formerly Weight Watchers) Twitter ad celebrating a “collective re-emergence” and inviting members to “get ready to feel, look, and be our very best” — paired with a video of mostly women listing off the staggering amounts of weight they’ve lost. Similar ads are cropping up on billboards, commercials and are being amplified on social media. Even local health centers are getting in on the action, like the Nebraska Safety Council, which had a full “kick the Covid-19 goodbye” program.

The result can feel like an onslaught of “wellness” messaging.

“My Twitter feed is suddenly full of ads for intermittent fasting apps; on Instagram, it’s wall-to-wall shapewear and fat-shredding supplements,” writes Jennifer Weiner in a New York Times essay, calling on us to resist the “weight-loss profiteers.” 

Still, plenty of Americans are buying in — hoping to get their pre-quarantine bodies back before attending the weddings and gatherings that were postponed through the pandemic. Diet companies like WW International saw a 16 percent jump in digital subscribers by the end of Q1 of 2021 compared to last year, reaching an all-time high. And Medifast, which offers a meal-replacement plan, has seen its revenue soar. 

At first blush, these weight-loss or fitness ad campaigns can seem innocuous — hopeful, even. They paint a rosy picture of returning to the lives we’ve missed over the past year. But instead of responding to consumer demand, these campaigns may be manufacturing pressure to lose pandemic weight, which experts say can be incredibly stressful and damaging.

“I get really frustrated with the memes and the joking about weight and the ‘quarantine 15,’” says Bethany C. Meyers, who created the be.come project. “Specifically marketing ploys that are really designed to prey on insecurities.” 

“So many of our bodies have changed during this time,” says Meyers. “We’ve been living in a really different environment. And I think sometimes we forget that our bodies are designed to be adaptable.”

Weight-loss-focused messaging has even seeped its way into the boutique fitness studios that’ve built their business models on body positivity, according to O’Grady. “You look at these studios who used to tell you all the time that you were good enough,” she said. “And now suddenly, post-pandemic, we’re not good enough and we need to go there to be OK again.”

O’Grady said she’s also concerned about a resurgence of traditional diet culture. She’s noticed an uptick in social media influencers using their platforms to give diet recommendations through Instagram or on TikTok, where “What I Eat In a Day” videos have exploded in popularity. These people often aren’t medical professionals and are sometimes being paid to promote certain foods or supplements, says O’Grady, who views the trend as “extremely dangerous.”

This messaging has put professionals who treat eating disorders on high alert. In fact, there was a significant increase in disordered eating, triggered by the stress of the pandemic: Hotline calls, texts, and other forms of messaging to NEDA have risen 54 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Chelsea Kronengold, the organization’s associate director of communications.

Now the conversation is turning toward whether the combination of nationwide reopening and pressure to lose lockdown weight will trigger a second surge in disordered eating, says Kronengold. “Any messaging that you need to change your body or your appearance,” she says, “is problematic.” 

If you’re struggling with stepping back into public life a few pounds heavier than before, O’Grady recommends looking for help “outside of the internet,” by talking to your doctor or reaching out to an organization like NEDA. If you’re feeling the pressure and aren’t ready for it, she also suggests hitting that “unfollow” button if you’re currently following social-media influencers who promote unhealthy goals, ideals that simply don’t align with what you want, or messaging that just makes you feel less than.

For those who don’t feel ready to return to the gym but do want to ease back into more movement, O’Grady suggests just going outside for a brisk walk or jog. Find an online workout that makes you feel good. And if you’re just getting back into the swing of things, start slow and build up to your comfort level to prevent injuries.

The important thing, she says, is not to be too self-critical.

“Last year, we went through a very traumatic time,” O’Grady points out. “And instead of beating ourselves up for possibly feeling a little different — or possibly weight sitting a bit differently — why don’t we look at what our bodies were able to survive? That’s what we should be focusing on.”