Covid + Obesity = Not Good

Thomas B. Gilliam

By Thomas B. Gilliam, Ph.D., Industrial Physical Capability
Services (IPCS)

Many research studies have been published showing that individuals who are hypertensive, diabetic, or asthmatic are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The connection between obesity and Covid has been discussed in the past but not as much as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma.

A new major meta-analysis study published in Obesity Reviews by Dr. Popkin and associates presented alarming data on the connection between being obese and the risk for COVID-19. In fact, the study stated that obese individuals compared to normal or overweight individuals have a greater than 46% chance of testing positive for COVID-19, a 113% greater chance of being hospitalized, a 74% greater chance of being admitted to the ICU, and a 48% greater chance of dying from Covid-19. Those are not great odds for anyone. The study also showed that as the level of obesity increases, so does the risk.

How many people could this possibly affect? The numbers are staggering. According to Dr. Popkin, 43% of US adults are obese as measured by a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more, and another 25-30% fall into the overweight category (BMI 25-29).

IPCS collects height and weight data when conducting its muscular strength assessments. Our database (over 500,000 tests) shows that obesity leveled off about 5 years ago at 43% of the workers tested and has been relatively consistent at that level since. But what is very critical to the health of the worker and the risk for Covid is shown in the chart on the next page.

The chart shows the percent changes in the number of workers in each BMI category over a 15-year time frame (2005-2019). If you add the percentages for each category beginning with BMI 30-34 through BMI>49, the overall percentage of obese workers in 2005 was 37% compared to those same categories in 2019 which is 43%.


A BMI of 35-39 is considered Severe, 40-49 Morbid, and greater than 49 Extreme Morbid. The percent change in the number of workers moving into the Severe, Morbid, and Extreme Morbid categories from 2005 to 2019 increased by 52%. It is these higher categories that greatly increase the risk of the worker for Covid 19.

The article went on to discuss how vaccines impact obese people differently than non-obese individuals. The research shows that most obese people need twice the flu vaccine dose to be effective. The concern is how effective will the Covid vaccine be with obese individuals especially those with higher BMIs.

Covid has changed two contributing factors to obesity according to Dr. Popkin. First, for many Americans, their diet has changed to now include many more “ultra-processed” foods that are higher in calories and sugar. Second, many more individuals have greatly reduced their level of physical activity. The combination of the increase in ultra-processed foods and lack of physical activity has resulted in many individuals gaining weight, especially the obese, during the pandemic which is not good. Covid has limited many workers’ physical activity by working virtually. Companies are relying on Zoom meetings that increase sitting time even more than prior to COVID-19.

Over the years, I have written about the importance of maintaining a healthy immune system to help combat infections and diseases. We know that physical activity leads to a healthier immune system and at the same time, obese individuals have a compromised immune system. So, the combination of less physical activity and weight gain today in our society because of Covid is not good for the overall health of the workers especially those who are already obese.

Covid is an infectious disease, like the flu, and will be with us for many years to come – just like other infectious diseases. It is not just going to be good enough to get a vaccine. The worker is going to need to contribute to his/her overall health by eating more nutritiously and increasing their level of physical activity. This combination (diet and exercise) will help the worker combat not only Covid but other infectious diseases as well. This would be a good time to put into place health/safety/benefit programs for 2021 to include programs to enhance the well-being of the worker for the good of the worker and the good of the company.

Thank You To Our Annual Sponsors

Join Our Network of Occupational Health Professionals