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Facing the Reality of Childhood Obesity Complicated by the COVID-19 Pandemic

It doesn’t take an expert to see the social effects caused by the pandemic. Yet, plenty of experts can confirm: this year-long travesty has created an abundance of fallout, and some of those hardest hit are the kids. While this conversation could go many directions, one of the most detrimental ways the COVID-19 restrictions have […]

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It doesn’t take an expert to see the social effects caused by the pandemic. Yet, plenty of experts can confirm: this year-long travesty has created an abundance of fallout, and some of those hardest hit are the kids.

While this conversation could go many directions, one of the most detrimental ways the COVID-19 restrictions have affected children is weight gain and related health complications. And even though this extra weight may stem from various sources, no one can argue that inactivity is a primary culprit. 

Manish Vakil, founder and CEO of Tumbles, an indoor play gym for children, is especially concerned for the children affected. He suggests taking a positive, proactive approach to the problem. “We eventually will be out of this pandemic,” says Vakil, “and rather than focus on the damage it’s done, we should look forward — not just for our personal good but also for the good of the world.” Vakil is spot-on. The latest statistics show a troubling rise in childhood obesity that becomes everyone’s responsibility to address.

Some troubling information

According to the CDC, in 2019, the rate of obesity for 2 to 19-year-olds was 18.5%, affecting 13.7 million children and adolescents. The problem is endemic, particularly in the United States, but it has been on the rise worldwide since the pandemic hit last March. Undoubtedly, the following elements have played a substantial role in pandemic weight gain:

  • The loss of low-fat, healthy breakfasts and lunches at school 
  • The lack of a structured environment with dedicated eating times rather than high calorie snacking with no nutritional value 
  • An unstructured sleep schedule that keeps children from getting the proper amount of rest. This lack of sleep can lead to malaise and boredom, presenting itself as hunger.
  • Extreme boredom that leads to excessive cooking and baking as a way to fill a void.

When compounded by these factors above, a lack of physical activity is wreaking havoc with children’s health. 

This lack of activity has several avenues of blame. First, many children and teens miss the regular day-to-day exercise at school. For grade school children, this includes physical education class and recess. For older kids, many are missing the sports practices and games where they used to participate.

And even outside of school, children and teens were active in dance, karate, hockey, swimming, tumbling— the list is endless. COVID-19 restrictions cut all of those opportunities for activity for several months, allowing the usually fit and active to become sluggish and inactive. Consequently, this issue manifested as weight gain for many children and teens. 

The consequences of remote learning screen time

According to an article by Sarah Cuschien and Stephan Grech published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the amount of screen time children have also plays a role in obesity. In the past year, the real complication has been the additional screen hours required for remote learning.

The article states that remote schooling was a logical and feasible solution to the loss of face-to-face learning. However, the added screen time brought new problems. The word ‘added’ is in reference to the idle time children were already online playing video games and engaging in social media. 

This increase lent itself to a more sedentary lifestyle and a higher risk of experiencing anxiety and depression in addition to weight gain. The study reported that screen time increased by approximately five hours per day compared to the pre-COVID-19 period. Consequently, body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage also increased. As a double-whammy, the article also stated that screen time lent itself to snacking. Therefore, increased inactivity and added calories made the perfect combination for weight gain. 

Family-focused solutions

Now that the damage is done, how do parents encourage their children to become more active? In some ways, the problem will solve itself with kids getting back to their usual way of life with recess, physical education, more nutritious meals, and athletic activities. However, we all know once a person puts on extra weight, it is challenging to shed, even for children. 

For families in an area with lifted restrictions, Vakil recommends enrolling your children in an organized activity as soon as possible. “Everyone has been cooped up too long,” says Vakil. “It’s time to get back out there and get active, and this includes children.”

If your part of the country is still on lockdown and getting out is not possible right now, search for fun family physical activities online, or you can always go for a walk or take your children to the park. Even though it’s the dead of winter in some parts of the country, families must add more activity back into their lives with some kind of routine. Vakil says it is important to do these activities together to show your children how important physical activity is for life-long good health.

As hard as it may be, do your best to make healthy choices at the grocery store. Many people complain that eating healthy is expensive, and some families feel the financial pinch right now. However, you can find some healthy foods at a reasonable cost. You just have to steer clear of prepackaged items and stick to raw vegetables and bulk low-fat meats that might need some extra preparation. In the end, you will be doing everyone in your family a favor.

Facing reality

All of the effects of this pandemic might not be seen or felt for many years. However, the reality is that this year of more screen time, less activity, more snacking, and less healthy food has taken a toll on a considerable portion of the nation’s children. Now is the time to start repairing the damage by introducing fun family activities that get your kids moving more and eating less. The alternative could be a whole generation of obese children who grow up to be obese adults with health complications that last a lifetime. 

Now, rather than later is the time to reverse this developing trend that could alter the course of your child’s life forever.

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