Gyms are closed, and anxiety is high. Hanging out with family and friends happens on FaceTime and Facebook
And the pantry and refrigerator are just a few steps away.
Hello, quarantine overeating.
At a time of extreme isolation and new routines amid the coronavirus pandemic, making healthy food choices can be difficult. People have to make fewer trips to the store, and key groceries are often out of stock. It can be even more challenging for those trying to manage their weight.
In mid-March, WW International, also known as Weight Watchers, decided to close its 3,000 physical locations but didn't want to leave members to fend for themselves in these trying times.
Mindy Grossman, WW president and CEO, said in an interview with USA TODAY that in a matter of days, the company took its 30,000 weekly workshops virtual and grew its members-only social network. About a quarter of the company's 5 million members worldwide are signed up for in-person workshops and digital tools.
"Everybody needs something right now," Grossman said. "It's more than being on track."
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This morning I was so excited to attend my first Virtual Workshop which WW launched today and was overwhelmed by the love and support displayed by everyone from the incredibly inspiring Coach to every member who shared their story. pic.twitter.com/gIE4wesSEF— Mindy Grossman (@mindygrossman) March 19, 2020
For WW members, there are two big changes in the long-standing in-person meetings. Instead of weighing in at a WW studio, members are encouraged to weigh in weekly and track their weight, then enter their digits into the WW app.
There's a new theme to the workshops – COVID-19 coping strategies. One week, the focus was on creating a routine, another week about stocking up on food, and another week was handling stress. Those looking for additional support can attend meetings in other parts of the country.
COVID-19 changes sleep, eat patterns
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says stress during an outbreak can change sleep and eating patterns, and Psychology Today says, "We often start to eat (or not eat) in a conscious or unconscious effort to suppress or soothe negative emotions."
To that end, researchers at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville are conducting a survey to study the effects of COVID-19 on food habits at www.covid19foodsurvey.com. More than 8,400 people have taken part, the website says.
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Of those surveyed, 73% say they agree or somewhat agree that they eat more because they are bored, and more than 64% agree or somewhat agree that they eat more than usual because of stress since the virus.
“These patterns may increase long-term chronic disease risk for many people,” Sarah Colby, associate professor of nutrition, said in a statement.
Zoom meetings and safety
WW uses the popular videoconferencing software Zoom to hold its meetings. The software's usage jumped from 10 million in December to 200 million in March.
As millions of Americans stay at home during the pandemic, many rely on the service to stay connected with family, friends, classmates and co-workers.
Though the FBI is looking at uninvited guests who "Zoom-bomb" online gatherings, joining unexpectedly without permission on Zoom, Stephen Fridakis, WW chief information security officer, said in a statement to USA TODAY that the company has not experienced any issues with disruption in its virtual workshops.
Fridakis said the video and audio are encrypted "to ensure that unauthorized parties cannot access member data." The workshops can't be recorded to protect member privacy and the "coach is able to monitor and control the participants, accepting those who pre-registered," he said.
Last month, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New York was interrupted on Zoom by a man hollering misogynistic and anti-Semitic slurs and saying things such as, "Alcohol is soooo good," Business Insider reported.
In other incidents reported to the FBI, a Massachusetts high school online class was interrupted by a person cursing and shouting the teacher's home address, and in a separate Massachusetts school meeting, an unidentified person appeared on video displaying swastika tattoos.
Zoom updated its software to prevent it from sending data from iOS device users to Facebook.
WW added waiting rooms to prescreen members for an extra layer of security before the workshops begin. USA TODAY's Jefferson Graham recommends adding waiting rooms as one of five safety tips to keep the "Zoom-bombing" hackers away.
Making new routines and lists
While routines are so disrupted, Dr. Gary Foster, WW chief scientific officer, said a regular meeting time provides structure.
“By joining a virtual workshop, you can see people and connect both with your own coach and the WW community – this makes a big difference during this time when people are isolated,” Foster said.
Members find their local workshop in the WW app, which has audio workouts and meditations, through the Connect social media network. Local groups were added to the app as part of the company's COVID-19 response.
“I can't think of anything more important than being able to connect in a time like this,” said Lisa Shaub, a WW wellness coach based in New York City. “And since we're all about connection and community, finding a way to keep continuity going is so critical.”
► Setting boundaries and creating structure can be comforting, Shaub said.
"This is not a time where we have a lot of control, but we do have a little bit of control over the food we put in our mouths and how we move our bodies," she said. Shaub runs nine workshops a week.
► She recommends making an eating routine and setting a schedule for when you'll eat your meals and snacks.
This shouldn't be confused with a popular meme circulating on social media that outlines a quarantine eating schedule with a 7 a.m. breakfast, 7:15 a.m. breakfast dessert and 8:30 panic snack with the news.
► Know what food you have in your pantry, freezer and fridge.
"Our fridge might be stocked, but it's a mess," Shaub said. "I've been making lists of what I have, like go-to healthy things. It's helpful because before I just go in and grab something, I can look."
► Focus on self-compassion and self-care.
"We're all in uncharted territory here, and there's going to be moments where we're not our best selves, and that's OK," Shaub said. "It's hard to take care of yourself when you're beating yourself up."
Angela Cruz of West Palm Beach, Florida, said she’s seen people posting about their struggles with the fridge on social media.
“It seems as if the stress of these uncertain times is acting like a trigger for unhealthy behavior,” Cruz said. “However, I have stuck with the WW plan even while I’ve been working from home for nearly three weeks.”
The virtual workshops have given her an extra boost of motivation, said Cruz, a lifestyle blogger and mother of a 21-month-old son.
“I feel that we are all missing the social part of our lives, and attending a WW digital meeting was amazing,” Cruz said.
Linda Barbieri of Dallas said she’s been attending WW virtually, and seeing her fellows members and coach makes her feel accountable.
“It seems that for me, the meetings bring me back to reality," she said. "Without them, it would be tough."
Shaub said she knows it's easy to give up, but WW wants to "give people the tools to just continue to take care of themselves."
"If there's ever been a time in the world that we should be focusing on our health and well-being, it’s right now," she said.
"Everyone is stressed and anxious, and community has never been more important," Grossman said. "In our virtual workshops, people talk about wellness and so much more – they laugh, they cry, they really support each other."
Good for WW members and business?
WW officials wouldn't comment on membership numbers or whether the 57-year-old company has gained or lost members but said there hasn't been a change in the prices.
Members who attend workshops and get digital access pay $44.95 a month, and digital-only members pay $20.95. Members who choose personal coaching pay $54.95 a month.
There are offers for new members signing up. Tuesday, the WW website promoted a 55% off discount, valid through April 13.
Oppenheimer stock analyst Brian Nagel, who tracks Weight Watchers, said in a note March 30 that he’s “increasingly optimistic that a now improved consumer message could resonate even better with ... new members, particularly amid broader market uncertainty.”
The company’s plans to “control expenses, without compromising its offering,” and temporarily boost virtual offerings should help, he said.
Contributing: Mike Snider and Jefferson Graham
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus quarantine overeating: WW launches virtual Zoom workshops