COVID-19 Pandemic Spells Trouble for Children's Health

Veronica Hackethal, MD

April 15, 2020

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Although priority number one lies in controlling the spread of COVID-19, public health researchers are calling attention to the long-term repercussions of the pandemic on children's health.

School closures could noticeably worsen the epidemic of childhood obesity that already threatens many children in the United States, say Paul Rundle, DrPH, and colleagues from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York City, in a perspective published online March 30 in Obesity.   

"In part, we wrote the perspective to remind people that summer unhealthy weight gain seems to accumulate year to year," he told Medscape Medical News in an email.

Rundle and colleagues estimate that time spent out of school will double this year because of school closures due to COVID-19. That, along with shelter-in-place orders, will pose challenges both for physical activity and healthy eating among children.

In addition, playgrounds have closed in many areas, and even where parks remain open, social distancing decreases opportunities for exercise. Team sports are on hold, and without physical education taught in schools, many children will not be getting as much active outdoor play as needed. 

That's especially true for children in urban areas, who may find it even more difficult to exercise inside cramped apartments, they add.

As a result, more and more children may turn to sedentary activities, and increased screen time goes hand in hand with childhood overweight and obesity, not just because of the lack of exercise but also because of snacking on unhealthy, empty-calorie foods while glued to the screen.

"We were hoping to get the word out on this issue, do some education or reminding, and at least let people know that this should be something to keep an eye on, among so many other things," Rundle added.

Excess Eating Because of Stress and Boredom

Jessica Sparks Lilley, MD, director of the Pediatric Diabetes and Lipid Program at the Mississippi Center for Advanced Medicine in Madison, agrees that it is crucial to address these issues.  

"Just like adults, children eat in response to emotions, including stress and boredom, and stress levels are high during these uncertain times," she told Medscape Medical News.

Although both Rundle and Sparks Lilley acknowledged the challenges of finding good solutions at this time, they do offer some tips.

Schools should make physical education and at-home exercise a priority alongside other remote teaching. Physical education teachers could even stream exercise classes to children at home.

Even just walking in the park while maintaining social distancing could be better than nothing, and a brisk walk is probably even better.

Depending on the age of the child, online yoga may also be useful. Even though yoga burns relatively few calories, it incorporates mindfulness training that may be helpful.

"I think focusing on promoting mindful eating as compared to mindless or distracted eating is important. Even in the best of circumstances, it is hard to exercise enough to burn off high energy snacks," Rundle said.  

Additional Stressors From Poverty: Schools Can Help With Meals

Children living in poverty, already the most vulnerable to obesity and related health problems, have additional stressors, add the two experts.

"As more Americans are losing jobs, poverty is a real threat to many of the children I care for. Families living in poverty often rely on processed, high-calorie, low-nutrient foods for survival, because they are inexpensive and shelf-stable," Sparks Lilley said.

Rundle and colleagues agree: "Our own experiences in supermarkets show...shelves that held...crackers, chips, ramen noodles, soda, sugary cereals, and processed ready-to-eat meals are quite empty. We anticipate that many children will experience higher calorie diets during the pandemic response."

Similar to how they address food insecurity during summer holidays, school districts have responded by offering grab-and-go meals, Rundle and colleagues note. 

To maintain social distancing for people with vulnerable family members, some school districts have also started delivering food using school buses that run along regularly scheduled routes. 

Rundle also stresses that farmers' markets, which often provide foods that appeal to immigrant and ethnic communities, should be considered part of essential food services.

As such, social distancing protocols should be established for them and they should be allowed to stay open, he argues.

"The safety of American children is at stake in many ways. The threat to themselves or their caregivers being infected with COVID-19 is rightly foremost in our concerns," Sparks Lilley stressed.

"However, there is other fallout to consider. We've seen very clearly the need for public health and preventive medicine and can't let vulnerable children fall through the cracks."

Rundle agrees. Although it is a "priority" to mitigate the immediate impact of COVID-19, "it is important to consider ways to prevent its long-term effects, including new risks for childhood obesity."

Rundle and coauthors, as well as Sparks Lilley,  have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Obesity. Published online March 30, 2020. Abstract

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