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Public health experts believe one impact of the school closures mandated by the coronavirus pandemic will be an increase in childhood obesity across the United States.
Andrew Rundle, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and his colleagues expect that COVID-19-related school closures will double out-of-school time this year for many children and exacerbate risk factors for weight gain associated with summer recess.
With tens of millions of families stocking up on more shelf-stable goods, there’s a good chance many parents are purchasing foods that are processed and calorie-dense. In many cities, especially more dense ones like New York, where residents live in often-cramped housing, there are fewer options for children to exercise due to mandated closures of playgrounds and some parks.
Researchers fear the COVID-19 pandemic will worsen America’s childhood obesity crisis. (iStock)
Time in front of screens is dramatically up for adults and children amid stay-at-home orders, which researchers believe is also associated with childhood obesity due to the sedentary nature of scrolling endlessly on cell phones or tablets.
“There could be long-term consequences for weight gained while children are out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rundle, who specializes in research to prevent childhood obesity, said in a statement. “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.”
The researchers, who published their perspective 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, including New York City, 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.
Researchers also recommend that cities and states should consider farmers markets, which often offer a range of specialty and prepared foods, as part of essential food services. They also say that schools should make physical education a priority, with home lesson plans for physical activity or streaming/virtual exercise classes.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for widespread sickness and death, straining healthcare systems, shutting down economies, and closing school districts,” said Rundle. “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.”