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Combating child weight gain during COVID-19

Image of a family riding bikes outside together (Photo by Getty Images)
Even without access to the gym, recreation centers, or school exercise programs, families should still find ways to keep their children active, according to Joyce Samuel, MD, with UTHealth and UT Physicians. (Photo by Getty Images)

The infamous “Quarantine 15,” a reference to packing on the pounds during the pandemic, is affecting even the youngest of Americans, according to UT Physicians pediatricians, who are seeing the evidence in front of them via telemedicine appointments.

As the pandemic rages on, with delayed school openings and possible continued virtual learning for all, the problem could get worse, causing lingering negative health issues for a generation of youth.

“During the school year, most parents rely on schools to provide their child with regular exercise,” said Joyce Samuel, MD, a pediatric nephrologist with UT Physicians and associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “Because of the ongoing situation surrounding COVID-19, it is important for parents to focus on their child’s health and ensure they are getting the proper exercise and nutrition to avoid child obesity.”

Online schooling eliminates the opportunity for children to walk to their classes, participate in gym exercises or run around during recess – all of which provide great exercise. Add to that the stress of living in a time of uncertainty, and children may react by reaching for sugary and fatty snacks, leading to unhealthy eating habits that can contribute to weight gain and jeopardize their long-term health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 20% of children in the U.S. are obese.

“Obesity is usually caused by multiple factors, including taking in too many high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks, unhealthy sleep habits, and too much screen and sedentary time – which lead to a lack of physical activity,” Samuel said.

Childhood obesity poses many risks. Children who are overweight are at high risk for developing:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Breathing problems such as asthma
  • Psychological problems including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem

“Children who develop unhealthy habits are most likely to carry these traits to adulthood, so it’s important to combat these issues at a young age to avoid these risks,” Samuel said. 

It can be tough for parents to find ways to keep their children active since children are spending the majority of their time at home due to COVID-19 precautions. However, Samuel says, even without access to the gym, recreation centers, or school exercise programs, families can still find ways to keep their children active.  

“There are plenty of apps with videos for short, home-based workouts that usually require little or no equipment. Another option is to get outside for a daily 30-minute walk or jog. As long as you are maintaining social distancing and staying with members of your household, this is a safe way to get some fresh air and regular exercise,” Samuel said.

Diet and exercise are essential parts to fighting obesity. Because most children are accustomed to routines, parents are encouraged to create a schedule, prioritize their child’s health, and practice good exercise habits. Deborah Horn, DO, MPH, medical director of the Center for Obesity Medicine and Metabolic Performance at UTHealth provided the following at-home diet and exercise tips to help minimize weight gain.

Diet

  • Provide children with meals that have both protein and produce.
    • Frozen fruit and vegetables are a good budget-friendly alternative to fresh produce, as long as there is no added sugar, syrup, or salt.
  • Limit the amount of unhealthy drinks and snacks.
    • Avoid snacks high in fat and sugar, like chips, cookies, and gummy snacks.
    • Stay away from sugary beverages such as soda, juices, and sports drinks, and drink water instead.

Exercise

  • Start simple – move three to five minutes every hour.
    • Jumping rope or running helps to strengthen bones.
    • Playing games like tug-of-war to strengthen muscles.
    • Aerobic activity, like bike riding or walking, is healthy for the heart.
  • Put time on a calendar to exercise several times a week.
  • Keep things fun and try new exercises such as
    • Outdoor sports
    • Scooter riding
    • Tag
    • Neighborhood scavenger hunts

In addition to regular diet and exercise, Samuel suggests getting a proper amount of sleep per night – eight to 10 hours a night for teenagers and nine to 12 hours a night for children between the ages of 6 and 12. Reducing screen time can also help reduce the risk of obesity.

“Later bedtimes have been shown to be associated with obesity, so putting the devices away at a reasonable bedtime and getting back to a more typical sleep schedule is another way to combat obesity,” she said.

COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of many, and children are no different.

“As parents, we need to understand that a healthy diet and exercise provide great benefits to our children’s minds and bodies,” Samuel said. “Many kids are stressed right now due to all of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, and doing regular exercise is great way to relieve stress and develop healthy habits at a young age.”

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