It’s also clear kids have not been spared, either. A recent government study found that during the first nine months of the pandemic, U.S. children and teenagers gained weight at twice the rate they had in the two years prior.
“Kids are back in school now, but some activities are still curtailed,” said Appelhans, an associate professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
For the study, Appelhans and his team tracked 230 children from urban, low-income families who were enrolled in a clinical trial testing an obesity treatment program — either before or during the pandemic.
More generally, he noted, there is a question of whether the pandemic has altered families’ daily routines in ways that will continue to make a healthy lifestyle more challenging.
The findings, researchers said, are no surprise. Many adults, faced with normal life being upended during the pandemic, have seen changes on the bathroom scale.
And while COVID restrictions have eased, life is not back to “normal,” said Bradley Appelhans, the lead researcher on the new study.
Pre-pandemic, Appelhans said, the program included in-person sessions for parents and other caregivers, offering them tactics to help their kids eat healthier and get exercise.
Once the pandemic hit, those sessions moved online or over the phone.
And for children in the program during that time, any benefits were diminished, the study found. Over one year, these kids typically saw an increase in their body mass index (BMI) — a measure of weight in relation to height. That stood in contrast to children in the program pre-pandemic: They typically showed a decrease in BMI that was sustained over one year.
The researchers suspect the findings reflect the conditions of the pandemic, rather than an ineffectiveness of tele-sessions. “Even though families were getting support, kids were still stuck at home, with nothing but the refrigerator and video games for distractions,” Appelhans said.
School, he noted, gives kids outlets for exercise and free or reduced-cost meals, as well as a general structure for the day. That lack of daily structure could be one of the major reasons for kids’ weight gain during the pandemic, said Amanda Staiano, a researcher who was not involved in the study.
But, she added, it does take a “whole family commitment” to help get kids back into a healthier routine. “That can mean just going outside for a walk around the neighborhood together,” Staiano said.
“Clearly, we know families were and are experiencing a lot of stress,” said Staiano, an associate professor of pediatric obesity and health behavior at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. No one is blaming families under stress and dealing with home-schooling.