As if the childhood obesity epidemic isn't bad enough, new research warns that over one million more American boys and girls stand to become obese if coronavirus-related school closures continue through the end of the year.
The culprit: a steep rise in sedentary behavior following the spring shutdown of school and afterschool sports and activities across all 50 states.
"If school closures continue to the end of 2020 -- due to unsubdued community transmission of COVID-19 -- the childhood obesity rate in the U.S. might further increase by 2.4%," said study author Ruopeng An. He's an assistant professor with the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
That translates into 1.27 million new childhood obesity cases by March 2021.
In the May 23 online edition of the Journal of Sport and Health Science, An stressed that childhood obesity is already a huge public health problem, affecting 13.7 million (nearly 19%) American kids aged 2 to 19 (according to 2017-2018 statistics).
In addition, even pre-COVID-19, less than one-quarter of kids were meeting exercise guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency advises that children get at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity per day.
Will school closures make things even worse? To see, An ran a few possible scenarios through a complex computer simulation model.
The model relied on body mass index and obesity data collected in a 2011 study that tracked weight patterns among more than 15,500 children, from kindergarten through 5th grade.
Obesity trajectories were projected through March 2021 based on four possible scenarios. The first scenario assumed that school closures only lasted a couple of months, before being lifted in May. A second option projected that beyond the two-month lockdowns, physical activity levels would plunge 10% throughout the summer. A third possibility envisioned additional school closures through October. And a final scenario explored what would happen if schools stayed shut through December.
All four scenarios were then compared to typical pre-pandemic obesity trends, after factoring in the kids' preexisting activity and dietary habits.
An determined that just closing schools for two months -- already a done deal in most parts of the country -- will likely drive up childhood obesity by 0.64% by next March. That's over and above what would happen under normal circumstances.
Scenario two would trigger a nearly 1% increase in pediatric obesity, while scenario three would result in a 1.7% jump.
And if school shutdowns last through December, the result would be a 2.4% rise across both genders and all races. (The simulation predicted only a slightly higher risk for obesity among boys and among black and Hispanic children.)
But Lona Sandon -- program director in the department of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas -- is not convinced.
"I have to say, I am skeptical. Not that this should not be a concern, but we have seen a lot of models lately that simply have not panned out," she noted. "What evidence do we have to say that kids are not getting the same amount of physical activity that they did during a normal school day? They could actually be getting more activity while at home."
Still, she and An agreed that there is value in parents making a concerted effort to help their kids eat well and stay active for however long the pandemic lasts.
An, for one, advocated limiting screen time. And he suggested that parents promote -- and join in on -- as much activity and exercise as possible.
Sandon, meanwhile, advised establishing both a family eating plan and a daily exercise routine.
"Home recess if you will. Take a walk/bike ride every day after lunch or dinner. Strap on the roller blades or jump on the skateboard and head to the park. Do a push-up, sit-up, mountain climber, or jumping jack challenge. Aim to do more jumping jacks each day until you reach 100 or more. Walk the dog a few times a day," Sandon suggested.
But she cautioned parents against excessive food restriction or weight shaming. The goal, she said, is to "keep it fun."
There's more about children and weight management at the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.