In a recent study published in Obesity, researchers assessed the association between school closing during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the possibility of weight gain among children.
Studies have shown that children have experienced unhealthy weight gain during the summer months when the children are out of school instead during the school year. Researchers have found that student weight increased throughout three academic years while the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased only over the summer break. Further research has revealed that children who are already overweight as well as African American and Hispanic youth are more likely to acquire weight over the summer school break.
Data also indicates that the weight gained over the summer is retained throughout the academic year and builds up from summer to summer. Long-term concerns arise from unhealthily gaining weight in children, as numerous studies suggest that childhood obesity is linked to heavier adult weight. For instance, it has been demonstrated that obesity beginning as early as age five, is linked to a significantly higher body mass index (BMI) and greater fat mass up until age 50.
Weight gain due to school closure
In the present study, researchers drew attention to the long-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on children's health with respect to childhood obesity and disparities in obesity risk.
The team hypothesized that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the risk factors associated with weight gain observed during summer school breaks. Children faced issues with food environments as well as physical activity due to school closures and shelter-in-place orders. More than 30 million children are given free or discounted school lunches each year. Several eligible households have reported high rates of food insecurity in the months of summer.
The team estimated that three days of school closures in Philadelphia might lead to over 405,000 school-age children missing meals. Although many towns are pursuing creative solutions to keep school lunches in place, the team anticipated that food insecurity for children during the COVID-19 pandemic would rise. Notably, food insecurity has been related to an increased risk of weight gain and obesity.
Weight gain due to social distancing measures
Possibilities for children to enjoy physical activity were decreased by social isolation and stay-at-home directives issued in cities, especially for children residing in small apartments in urban regions. Under social distancing regulations, sedentary behaviors and screen time are anticipated to increase. Available evidence indicates that usage of online video gaming has already increased. The team noted that screen time is linked to childhood overweight/obesity, most likely as a result of both sedentary behavior and the relationship between snacking and screen time.
While an increase in sedentary behavior affects all children, it is likely to highly impact urban children who lack access to safe and accessible spaces where they may keep their distance from others. Despite the fact that parks and playgrounds are still open in some places, it is widely acknowledged that it is impossible to keep the playgrounds tidy and that children will find it difficult to maintain social distancing. Therefore, it makes sense that urban families would decide not to use these areas, which would widen the gap between those who can and cannot continue to be physically active outside.
Current alternatives and solutions
It is customary for schools to offer grab-and-go meals during the summer break, but this practice may not be suitable for households with elderly relatives who are fragile. Instead, several communities have already started using school buses that travel with their regular pickup routes to deliver lunches. Farmers' markets frequently offer specialized and ethnic produce as well as prepared foods that are highly valued by immigrant groups. Therefore, states and municipalities should consider them as part of critical food services and create social distancing guidelines for these markets.
The researchers believe physical education should be prioritized as schools expand their ability to educate remotely. Lesson plans for physical activity could be sent home for parents and students to implement. Numerous workout programs exist developed for business travelers to utilize in hotel rooms and with basic gym equipment. These workout programs could be converted into at-home lesson plans for children. Physical education teachers could also stream school workout sessions with the technology to do so.
Overall, the study predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak will likely double the time spent out of school by children in the United States while exacerbating the dangers of weight gain during the summer recess.
Rundle, A.G., Park, Y., Herbstman, J.B., Kinsey, E.W. and Wang, Y.C. (2020), COVID-19–Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children. Obesity, 28: 1008-1009. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.22813 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.22813