What’s COVID-19 doing to our kids?

The elderly are bearing the brunt of the worst of COVID-19, but children are hurting too. More than 2 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for coronavirus although rates of death and hospitalizations in those under 16 are very low — 0.01% and 0.8%, respectively. Still the long-term effects of the pandemic are expected to have an impact on kids, especially when it comes to obesity.

COVID-19 has kept kids out of school and cooped up indoors during the pandemic. The result? They are moving less, sleeping more, increasingly hooked on their phones and tablets and, in some cases, eating less healthily. Studies show that regular school attendance helps reduce obesity in children since it gives them a regular structure to their day, as well as access to physical education classes and healthy school lunches. 

Not being able to walk or bike to school, to access playgrounds and participate in sports teams and physical education during the pandemic puts kids at risk of obesity. A survey from Dalhousie University’s Healthy Population Institute found that less than 3% of kids were getting the recommended amount of exercise (60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day) for kids aged 5 to 17. 

It’s not just a lack of exercise that’s having a negative effect on kids. A lack of sufficient shut-eye can also be a problem. The pandemic has created havoc with our usual routines but it’s important to have some kind of structure around bedtime.Children ages 5 to 13 should be getting 9 to 11 hours of sleep a night and those ages 14-17 need 8-10 hours.

Another factor that affects the health of kids is the increased amount of time they are spending in front of their screens during the pandemic. Pediatric organizations recommend no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time for children over 2. (If you are finding it difficult to put limits on how much time your children are spending on their devices, know that you aren’t alone).

In addition to the lack of access to healthy school lunches, many families have been negatively financially impacted by the pandemic, and this can result in the kind of food insecurity that leads to the consumption of inexpensive and unhealthy meals. Many families also made fewer grocery shopping trips and increasingly relied on non-perishable foods. Evidence suggests that having multiple convenience stores in a child’s neighbourhood can also have a negative impact on their weight, especially because they are more likely to go to these stores during extended school closures. 

So what can families do to protect their children from the obesity-related risk of COVID-19? Here are a few things to consider;

•Get creative when it comes to movement: Consider activities such as physically-distanced football, shooting hoops together as a family or solo activities such as juggling.

•Keep the idea of balance in mind. Is your child eating healthy, getting some form of exercise every day, doing schoolwork and keeping in touch with friends and family. If the answer is yes, a bit of extra screen time right now likely isn’t a problem.

•Maintain a routine: Try to make sure kids still have some structure — for example, getting up, eating and going to bed around the same time every day.

•Consider that having a family pet, particularly a dog, can help kids cope better during stressful times such as COVID-19. The health benefits of having a pet are well documented, from providing a reason to get out and walk every day to reducing anxiety.

•Manage your own anxiety and consider reducing the consumption of alarming news, especially on TV and radio, when children might overhear upsetting information.

•Reach out for help if you need it. Whether it’s support from family and friends or professional care from a therapist or health care provider, it’s important to recognize your limits and know when to seek assistance with life’s challenges.

As the pandemic wears on, one thing is clear: parental awareness and support can go a long way to keeping children healthy during COVID-19.