A Doctor's Tips For Maintaining Healthy Lifestyles For Young Ones Stuck at Home
About the Author
Dr. DeMeyere-Coursey chose to practice medicine at Paladina Health because she wants to be a part of the innovative changes coming to the delivery of primary care. She strives to spend productive time with her patients in an environment that fosters individualized, whole-person care.
With so much focus on the viral infection caused by COVID-19, it's easy to overlook other health crises which are being caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. From the time states announced the first shelter-in-place orders, medical experts worried about the adverse health effects that would surface from children being stuck at home and away from their normal activities, including school routines.
Numerous studies have previously documented the added risk factors of summer breaks when children tend to gain more weight than throughout the school year. TheCOVID-19 shutdown is proving to have a similar impact, as well as some added risks.
The school environment provides structure and routines which better control meal and sleep times, as well as physical activity. Children walk between classes, they go out to recess, attend physical education classes, and they participate in after-school programs–all of which keep them moving.
Unfortunately, the problem of overweight children is not a new occurrence which can be blamed solely on the pandemic. The topic of obesity in childhood is one which I am personally passionate about, having been the “fat kid” in elementary school myself. It wasn’t until I attended college and became self-motivated in regards to nutrition and exercise that I started to see how I was set up for failure at a very young age. Activity was always encouraged in my household, but my diet was a free-for-all without much guidance or education (if any!) about eating junk food in moderation. I’m hopeful this article will help provide some useful and hopefully easy changes which can be used in your household to keep our children healthier and promote their long term wellness.
A Rising Trend
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has been steadily increasing over the last four decades. The agency estimates more than one-third of children under the age of 19 are classified as overweight or obese. Obesity at such an early age has shown to increase the chances of being obese as an adult which then leads to other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Of note, obesity has also been identified by the CDC as a leading morbidity factor for patients infected with the COVID-19 virus.
On top of an already disturbing trend, we have lingering shutdowns in response to the COVID crisis. A study by the University at Buffalo showed the COVID-19 lockdowns have negatively impacted diets, sleep, and physical activity among children with obesity. The study, which was published in the April issue of Obesity, compared exercise and diet habits from spring 2019 to spring 2020 and specifically found that the lockdown has caused children to:
- Eat one extra meal per day
- Sleep an extra half hour per day
- Spend five extra hours per day in front of a phone, computer or TV screen
- Significantly increase the consumption of red meat, sugary drinks and junk food
- Decrease physical activity more than two hours per week
Another study from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis showed that even a two-month school closure can result in an increase of 0.64% in childhood obesity. It went on to predict that childhood obesity could increase by 2.4% if schools remain closed through December. Additionally, professors at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health believe the impact will be greater for Hispanic and African American youth, as well as those youths who are already overweight.
Such projections take into account the typical weight gains children normally experience during summer breaks (gains which are seldom lost during the school year), plus the added risks from the pandemic, such as social distancing (which limits play activities), food hoarding and food insecurity.
Grocery store sales show that, as parents stocked up on food at the peak of the pandemic, their focus was on shelf-stable foods which are often ultra-processed and calorie-dense. Those families who were hit hardest financially either through job loss or wage cuts are at greater risk since they are likely to purchase less expensive foods which are typically the unhealthiest. Children living in urban areas with little green space or in small apartments additionally have limited exercise options.
Healthy Habits to Prevent Childhood Obesity
There are, however, solutions all families can incorporate into their daily routines in order to battle obesity. It’s important to note a healthier lifestyle starts with the parents and guardians of that household, so I will counsel those individuals to set the standard in their home! If they eat healthier and adopt a healthier lifestyle, their children are far more likely to follow suit.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an hour of physical activity per day for teens and younger children, although this goal might need to be met slowly for children who have not been exercising at all. Exercise is important not only for shedding pounds but also for boosting immune systems and reducing stress which can lead to overeating. When counseling my patients, I emphasize “health” and “wellness” rather than “weight” - an important distinction, especially on such a sensitive topic.
In addition, the following tips may be helpful:
- Make exercise a family activity and consider creating fitness challenges amongst members.
- Be creative in developing exercise routines, taking advantage of what's already in the home, such as stairs or using cans of vegetables as weights.
- If your neighborhood is safe, consider implementing an after-dinner walk.
- Encourage outdoor play, such as rope jumping, biking, roller blading, etc. At my home, we have some lawn games to encourage us to get out into the sunshine (bocce ball or lawn bowling to name a few).
- Check out online videos and virtual classes focused on exercise (even TikTok can be a great tool to encourage people to get up and dance).
- Create exercise journals or have sticker charts so children can track their progress. For a reward, consider some fun activity or toy which encourages more outdoor play!
- Assign calorie-burning chores.
- Promote portion control during meals – One easy way to do this is to use smaller plates during mealtime.
- Immediately store leftover food so family members aren't tempted to overeat.
- Don't use food as a reward or punishment.
- Incorporate more fruits and vegetables into meals.
- Don't eat with the TV on, as this extends meal time.
- Don't wait too long to eat as this causes overeating and a tendency to consume junk foods.
- Set regular schedules for eating and sleeping.
- Encourage hobbies which are distracting and engaging.
Most importantly, don't skip medical appointments or postpone scheduled vaccines as this could lead to more serious health consequences. Paladina Health clinics are all equipped to handle virtual visits, or you can call a clinic to schedule an appointment for an in-person visit. If you have concerns about a family member's weight, please discuss them with your healthcare provider who can offer additional tips and guidelines catered to your specific situation and needs.