Anxiety, depression, and stalled social development are a few of the troubling developments that research has linked to the pandemic. Add obesity to that list.
Recent research has found a significant rise in obesity rates among children and teens over the course of the pandemic, accelerating an already troubling upward trend.
Schools, a key source of proper nutrition and physical education, are positioned to help head off this trend. But efforts to tackle the problem face stiff competition for educators’ attention alongside the ongoing pandemic, staff shortages, and the need to make up for lost academic ground.
“It is concerning to me and all school nurses because the disease of obesity has some big impacts on the health and learning of children,” said Kate King, the president elect of the National Association of School Nurses and a school nurse at World Language Middle School in Columbus, Ohio.
While school building closures, excessive amounts of screen time, and much less exercise likely fueled the rise in obesity among children during the first year or so of the pandemic, simply returning kids to in-person learning won’t solve the problem, said King.
“It’s not that easy to take that weight off again,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a longer haul—I don’t think we’re just going to even out again in a year.”
King understands that the pandemic continues to drain resources from schools. The time school nurses would normally have spent conducting health screenings or creating programing to promote healthy eating and exercise among students has been gobbled up by pandemic-related tasks such as contact tracing and COVID-19 testing.
But educators must be purposeful about addressing the rise in obesity among school-aged children, she said.
Studies and surveys have found that children spent more time in front of a screen, ate more processed and fast foods, and spent less time exercising when school buildings were closed. All of that likely contributed to weight gain among children, suggests the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a study published last fall. The study analyzed body mass index, or BMI, data on more than 432,000 children and teens ages 2 to 19 between August 2019 and August 2020.
The percentage of children and teens who were obese rose from 19 to 22 percent in just one year, an increase described by one of the study’s authors as “substantial and alarming,” according to the Associated Press. Children in preschool and elementary school, and kids who already had moderate or severe obesity before the pandemic, saw the biggest weight gains.
Obesity hurts kids’ learning and mental health
Weight gain linked to the pandemic is not limited to the United States or just children and adolescents. Childhood obesity rates also increased substantially in the United Kingdom during the pandemic, and 42 percent of U.S. adults told the American Psychological Association and The Harris Poll in a February 2021 survey they had gained more weight than they intended since the pandemic started. The median weight gain among those adults was 15 pounds.
Obesity can lead to several other negative health conditions in children—both physical and mental, according to the CDC—including high blood pressure and cholesterol, breathing problems, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
When you have a kid who has less than 10 minutes to eat a lunch, it is heartbreaking to see them try and shovel a salad into their mouths as they’re walking to the trash.
King emphasized that physical movement, even just small breaks during class time to move around, is connected to learning and good mental health.
“We know that exercise releases endorphins, brain chemicals, that make us think and feel better,” she said. “We know that taking those mental breaks, which can be physical as well, helps our brain to process what we are learning.”
Obesity is an equity issue, too, said King, citing research that shows that Black and brown children are more likely to have obesity.
In addition, low-income families can find it particularly hard to get a good diet and enough exercise, said King. Kids with parents working multiple jobs might eat more cheap, processed foods, she said.
To make matters worse, King pointed out that children and teens who live in areas with high crime rates or near busy roads likely spend less time exercising; many extracurricular activities such as sports take time and money that low-income families simply don’t have; and supply chain disruptions and rising food costs are only going to make these disparities worse.
What schools can do to combat obesity
Childhood obesity may look like too big of a problem for schools to tackle. Or maybe it’s simply secondary to other more pressing crises caused by the pandemic. Even so, school health experts say there are small steps that educators can take to help students get more physical activity and better nutrition during the school day.
School leaders should get rid of vending machines filled with candy, chips, and soft drinks, and avoid using food as a reward, said King. They should also never take away recess from students to punish them for misbehavior.
Lunch should also follow recess in school schedules, not the other way around, said Jessica Shelly, the director of dining services for the Cincinnati public schools. Kids are more likely to eat their food if they have had a chance to run around and play before mealtime.
While the types of food schools serve are largely dictated by federal rules around providing nutritious meals to students (and whatever they can procure with all the disruptions to the supply chain), there are other adjustments to the meal schedule schools can make to ensure kids are eating their food. One relatively easy adjustment is to extend mealtimes, said Shelly.
To address social distancing measures during the pandemic, the city’s largest high school added one extra lunch bell and increased all other lunch periods to 40 minutes. As a result, participation in the school lunch program rose dramatically. “Participation doubled. Doubled! Because they had time to come down, come through the line, get a meal, eat the meal,” said Shelly.
Healthier foods also take more time to eat, Shelly added, comparing chewing an apple to slurping down apple sauce.
“When you have a kid who has less than 10 minutes to eat a lunch, it is heartbreaking to see them try and shovel a salad into their mouths as they’re walking to the trash,” she said.
For teachers, there are many ways they can incorporate more physical activity into their classrooms, said Terri Drain, a longtime physical education teacher and the president of SHAPE America, a national organization of physical education instructors.
“Kids learn better after they get up and move,” said Drain. “Insert some physical activity and power breaks, but also provide kids the opportunity to learn with movement.”
That might mean using basketball to teach about inertia, force, and momentum; or a game of bowling to teach fractions by asking students to convert the number of pins they knocked down into a fraction.
Drain also recommends assigning discussion questions for students to tackle as they walk around the schoolyard in pairs instead of sitting at their desks, and giving homework that requires students to go outside instead of spending more time on a screen.
Those small movement breaks add up and can have a big impact, said King, the school nurse. She believes schools should make it a policy to set aside five minutes at the beginning of every class period to move around and stretch.
“All of this does make a difference,” said King. “Just like teachers and staff and all of us modeling healthy behaviors, creating this culture of health in schools will stick with children for the rest of their lives.”