Pandemic appears to have worsened child obesity; doctors & fitness advocates urge more physical activity

Study finds obesity increase was more pronounced in Hispanic and Black kids
Published: Jun. 29, 2021 at 8:05 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - At Joe Brown Park groups of kids of varying ages took part in fun activities. They were attending a NORD summer camp.

An instructor tutored a group of older kids on the art of steering a canoe and before long they were in the water using the paddles to move the vessels forward.

Larry Barabino is NORD’s Chief Executive Officer. He is thrilled kids have more freedoms now even as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.

“Today they’re able to come outside, play Tag, play sports, and participate and that’s huge because, without it, our kids will sit around and then, of course, you will see obesity start to sit in,” said Barabino.

But the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have worsened child obesity. Many kids were forced to be schooled online for most of 2020 and into 2021.

A study released in May by the American Academy of Pediatrics is based on 500,000 visits to pediatricians.

Researchers wrote: “On average, overall obesity prevalence increased from 13.7 percent (June to December 2019) to 15.4 percent (June to December 2020). This increase was more pronounced in patients aged 5 to 9 years and those who were Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, publicly insured, or lower income.”

Barabino says physical activity declined for many kids because of the pandemic. “During COVID these kids sat there and did nothing, you know, there were no outdoor activities, and many parents were concerned about their kids participating in outdoor activities, so they kept them in to be safe and we understood,” said Barabino.

The CDC said the child obesity problem is serious.

The CDC’s website says, “For children and adolescents aged 2-19 years in 2017-2018: The prevalence of obesity was 19.3 percent and affected about 14.4 million children and adolescents.”

Further, the CDC and the Health and Human Services Department recommend school-aged children including high students do an hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous activity daily. But many kids are falling short of the guidelines. And the Kaiser Family Foundation says for 2017, 65 percent of high school students in Louisiana were not meeting the recommended physical activity level.

Dr. Gregory Stewart is an Associate Professor of Sports Medicine at Tulane University. He says he is not surprised that kids are getting less physical activity than recommended.

“No, it’s not surprising and I’m not sure that a number of the high school kids were meeting it even before the pandemic,” said Stewart.

Stewart says being obese as a child can lead to health problems that linger into adulthood.

“It is very common that a lot of the chronic conditions start very early and we’re seeing now that especially obesity starting at a younger and younger age and it’s a combination of diet, the amount that we eat and then a lack of exercise,” he said.

Stewart recommends tackling obesity as soon as possible.

“If you are overweight the earlier that you can get back on a good diet and an exercise program and lose that weight and get in shape, the better you are long-term,” he said.

Stewart said COVID-19 underscores how having chronic conditions puts people who contract the virus at risk for poorer outcomes.

“Obesity, diabetes, you know, cardiovascular issues, hypertension, all of the things that you look at that early on we were saying were a problem and put you at higher risk for a bad outcome with COVID-19 were all things that if you exercise you could reverse, so if you exercise you’re more apt to do well if you do get the virus,” said Stewart.

Barabino’s message to kids to be as active as possible.

“Get moving, get outside, get active; take walks with your friends, you guys like to be on the phone all the time but challenge them; do a Tik Tok video of you guys moving or exercising, dancing,” Barabino stated.

Stewart agrees,

“It’s really anything that you do, any activity is better than no activity, so even if it is going outside and mowing the yard or working in the garden, even taking the garbage out,” he said.

He says building strong bone and muscle mass in childhood is critical because it provides benefits in adulthood.

“And as we get older we lose muscle mass, so getting ahead becomes important; the same thing with bone density, especially women, but men are not immune to that either,” Stewart stated.

He recommends parents speak to their kids’ doctor about an exercise program.

He said it’s also important to keep kids hydrated during outdoor physical activity.

“We’ve got to think about the heat and making sure that people are staying hydrated and aren’t going outside at 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the middle of the day, and starting to exercise when they’ve been inside for weeks or months now,” Stewart said.

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