Stress eating and coronavirus: Weight Watchers rolls out Zoom virtual workshops

Gyms are closed, and anxiety is high. Hanging out with family and friends happens on FaceTime and Facebook. 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 five 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.”

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.

Zoom meetings and safety

WW uses the popular video conferencing 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 preregistered,” he said.

WW added waiting rooms to pre-screen members for an extra layer of security before the workshops begin.

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.

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“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.”

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 per cent off discount, valid through April 13.


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