Eight months of unhealthy eating habits. More time in front of computer screens. Anxieties. Cancelled sports and activities.
The coronavirus pandemic has been harmful to children’s health and pediatricians say the mix could lead to a spike in obesity that affects their ability to fight the virus.
In fact, early studies on children’s eating habits have already indicated that the lockdowns meant to stop the spread of the virus are indeed leading to weight gain in children. One study on a group of 41 obese children in Italy found that three weeks in to the mandatory lockdown there, children were moving less and eating more, potentially causing weight gain they could carry into their adult lives.
South Florida pediatricians say they expect to see more overweight children, citing increased screen time, lack of structure they were getting in schools and delays in pediatric appointments.
“Just like in the adults that are gaining weight, children are as well,” said Dr. Elizabeth Steinberg, a pediatrician with Broward Health Physician Group. “They aren’t shielded from the risk factors of being in home isolation and not getting enough physical activity.”
Even virtual schooling is contributing to the issue, said Dr. Fernando Mendoza, a pediatric emergency medicine physician with Baptist Health.
“All that screen time isn’t bad. It just can be if you aren’t managing it as a parent,” Mendoza said, adding that there is a correlation between increased screen time in children and a rise in childhood obesity.
During the pandemic, screen time for children increased by at least 50 percent, one study found. Other studies dating back to the 1980s have shown the correlation between increased screen time and obesity in children. The odds of being overweight were 4.6 times higher for a child who watched five or more hours of television a day than for a child who watched fewer than two hours a day.
Monitoring a child’s activities, screen time and eating habits is just as crucial for parents as making sure their kids wear a mask, wash their hands and socially distance, experts say. Dr. Tara Harris of West Boca Medical Center recommends something as simple as going for a walk around the neighborhood as a family.
“There are tons of free workout things like kids yoga and exercises on YouTube,” Dr. Harris said. “Just get your body moving.”
For parents concerned about their child being exposed to the virus while doing sports, Dr. Mendoza suggested low risk activities like swimming, tennis or shooting hoops at a local park. Parents should also try to do family walks early in the morning to get their child’s metabolic rate up.
Parents also need to provide the structure that school gave their children when it came to eating and physical activity. Dr. Harris said she believes parents should consider sending children to school if they don’t live in a home with high-risk relatives.
“f obesity is your only concern, for that particular child, and that activity gives them a little bit more time to burn off some steam and some calories, it might be worth the risk,” Dr. Harris said.
Doctors said parents are also delaying pediatrician appointments and vaccinations over concerns about exposure to the virus in a medical office. Those visits allow doctors to monitor weight.
“This is not the time to back away from appropriate pediatric care,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Get those annual and scheduled vaccines. It gives you the opportunity for the pediatrician to look at their BMI and give advice on how to exercise and incorporate that into their quarantine life.”
The trend signals a possible area of concern as scientists struggle to better understand how the virus affects the human body and the best ways of defeating it. Obesity is considered to be one of the biggest comorbidities in the virus, putting children at greater risk of complications if they are infected
“(Children) don’t really get that sick, but when they do, obesity is one of the comorbidities,” Dr. Mendoza explained. “You are definitely at more risk if you are an obese teenager or child than if you are not one.”
Obesity is often linked with other illnesses that put people at risk for complications from the virus, like high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Researchers are still trying to understand why the virus is more aggressive in those with obesity.
“What we do understand about coronavirus, the actual infection may not be severe but when you add in all these complicated risk factors your physiology goes in to overdrive and you have this inflammation that makes it worse,” Steinberg said.