Childhood obesity – worsened by a year of lockdowns and loosely structured online school – is on the rise.
Before the pandemic, about 36% of children ages 5 to 11 were considered either obese or overweight. Today, that number has jumped to a staggering 45.7%.
The trend is setting millions of young people up for dangerous illnesses and a lifetime of health problems.
Drivers of Childhood Obesity
Two main COVID-related factors have contributed to the problem.
- Reduction in physical activity. Children who previously walked or biked to school instead found themselves sitting in front of the home computer for class. The absence of recess, gym and movement breaks also contributed to a more sedentary school day for most kids.
Opportunities for physical activity outside of school also diminished as parks closed and afterschool sports were canceled.
- Less nutritionally balanced meals. Nearly 30 million kids get free or low-cost lunch at school. Despite efforts to get those meals to kids, school-based food service programs served 30% fewer meals during the first nine months of the pandemic.
Meals provided at school are, on average, healthier than what most kids have access to on their own. Especially in lower-income households, prepackaged, high-calorie options are more readily available throughout the day – as opposed to only after school and on weekends.
Studies show that students generally tend to gain weight over the summer, then “level out” during the school year. But some experts are concerned about COVID-19 habits becoming routine, leading to long-term weight-related health problems.
And that’s what happens to kids who are overweight. Childhood obesity can have long-lasting effects, ranging from cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes to anxiety and low self-esteem. Childhood obesity is directly linked to higher risk of premature death and disability in adulthood.
Coincidentally, most kids will return to face-to-face instruction during September, which is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. As the scales show, there’s never been a more opportune time to raise awareness about kids’ weight and long-term health.