The coronavirus pandemic has caused thousands of schools to shut down across the country – due to the shelter-in-place mandates. As a result, an estimated 55 million students will be home from school for double the length of their normal summer vacations, if not longer.
Some experts are now warning that one of the likely consequences for many homebound children will be an increase in the unhealthy levels of weight gain, typically seen only during summer breaks. With limited opportunities to exercise, and many opportunities to eat unhealthy foods and snack all day, children could end up gaining weight. At Kids Choice Pediatrics, we are already seeing patients with substantial weight gain over the last few weeks.
According to a new report in the journal Obesity, Dr. Andrew Rundle and his co-authors say that this six-month period or longer is doubling out-of-school time, and it is exacerbating the typical risk factors for summer weight gain. One of the lingering effects of the pandemic could be a worsening of the obesity crisis among children. Childhood obesity rates have been on the rise in America for the past four decades, with more than a third of all youth under the age of 19 classified as overweight or obese. Studies show that overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults, and that puts them at a higher risk of developing heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
In recent years, researchers have begun to recognize that summer recess plays a major role in unhealthy weight gain. At least a half dozen studies have found that children gain weight at a faster rate during the summer months than during the school year – especially children in minority groups or those who are already overweight. One large study, reported in the Journal of School Health, that tracked thousands of schoolchildren for five years starting in kindergarten found that school had a protective effect on their body compositions: On average, children saw their body mass index (BMI) fall by 1.5 percentile points during the school year and then jump about 5 percentile points during their summer vacations.
Ultimately, some experts believe that the structured nature of the school day, with its scheduled exercise periods and limited chances to snack, is what helps protect children from excess weight gain. When children are at home for the summer, their days may be less regimented and less supervised, allowing them to indulge in more snacks and sedentary behaviors — similar to the factors that lead adults to eat more on weekends and pack on extra pounds during the holidays.
There are many reasons school environments can prevent excessive weight gain. Most schools offer students some level of exercise through physical education, team sports, and daily recess periods. Many children get about half their daily calories at school, which are required to provide meals that meet nutrition standards for components like sodium, whole grains, lean protein and fruits and vegetables. While junk foods can still be found in school cafeterias, many schools have worked to eliminate sugary beverages, candy and chips from their lunch lines and vending machines.
During the summer vacation, it is the reverse. Studies find that children spend more time sitting in front of screens watching television and playing video games. They tend to consume more snacks and sugary beverages and eat fewer fruits and vegetables. That may especially be the case for children from low-income households that depend on schools to provide healthy meals. About 30 million children across the country receive free or subsidized school meals.
Dr. Rundle and his colleagues suggested in their new paper that schools, parents and policymakers could mitigate the long-term impact of the pandemic on children’s health by promoting exercise and healthy eating — where possible — during the lockdowns. Some schools, for example, have developed home lesson plans for exercise to go along with their lesson plans for math and English.
During these stay-at-home periods, make exercise a priority for you and your family. If you want to inspire your child to get moving, the best way to do it is to set an example yourself. Choose to be active with your kids as much as possible, rather than expecting them to do it on their own. Take a family walk or bike ride, kick a ball outside or join your child for a video-led yoga or workout session. When your child sets a goal, set your own goal as well to model healthy choices. Being active together is not only good for your family’s health, but also offers valuable time to bond.
The outdoors gives children plenty of space to explore and play and offers many easy ways to be active. However, when you are stuck inside with children, it can be a challenge to find options that help expend their energy. Here are some ideas for indoor exercises for kids:
• Stream kid-friendly workout videos online
• Body weight exercises like push-ups, planks, squats or mountain climbers
• Jumping jacks
• Dancing to music
• Jump rope
At the same time, try to limit unnecessary calories from sugar-sweetened beverages and excessive snacking. One good resource for stressed families is the American Heart Association, which provides quick, heart-healthy recipes on its website that can be made with canned foods and other inexpensive pantry items.
At Kids Choice Pediatrics, we provide individual obesity consultation services to help children and their parents understand the causes of obesity so they can make important changes to improve health and wellness. An obesity consultation includes a comprehensive physical examination including a review of the child’s personal and family medical histories to look for underlying issues that may be contributing to the condition.