Across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily closed schools and some of these school systems are not expected to re-open this school year. Due to these closures, public health scientists are predicting the pandemic will exacerbate the epidemic of childhood obesity in the US.
Andrew Rundle, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues expect that COVID-19-related school closures will double out-of-school time this year for many children in the US, which will exacerbate risk factors for weight gain associated with summer recess.
While much has been written about poor food and lack of physical activity in schools, the data shows that children experience unhealthy weight gain primarily during the summer months when they are out of school. Unhealthy weight gain over the summer school recess is particularly apparent for Hispanic and African-American youth and children who are already overweight.
“There could be long-term consequences for weight gained while children are out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rundle, who specializes in research to prevent childhood obesity. “Research shows that weight gained over the summer months is maintained during the school year and accrues summer to summer. When a child experiences obesity, even at a young age, they are at risk for higher, unhealthy weight, all the way into middle age.”
As households stock up on shelf-stable foods, they appear to be purchasing ultra-processed, calorie-dense comfort foods. In regards to physical activity, social distancing and stay at home orders reduce the opportunities for exercise, particularly for children in urban areas living in small apartments.
Sedentary activities and screen time are expected to expand under social distancing orders and available data show that online video game usage is already soaring. Screen time is associated with experiencing obesity in childhood, likely because of the dual issues of sedentary time and the association between screen time and snacking.
The researchers, who published their prospective study in Obesity, the journal of the Obesity Society, recommend several solutions to mitigate the potential health fallout for children. Families should take advantage of grab-and-go meals at school sites, which some districts are offering. Food insecurity is associated with unhealthy weight among children, according to researchers, and addressing food insecurity is likely to have long term benefits for child health. They also suggested that schools should make physical education a priority, with home lesson plans for physical activity or virtual exercise classes.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for widespread sickness and death, straining healthcare systems, shutting down economies, and closing school districts,” Rundle said. “While it is a priority to mitigate its immediate impact, it is important to consider ways to prevent its long-term effects, including new risks for childhood obesity.”