With the stress of the ongoing pandemic, children starting to go back to school in person after months of virtual school, sport and activity cancellations, and the change of what was considered the “normal” routine, it can be easy to consider your child’s weight gain of a few extra pounds as temporary. But this weight gain may not be trivial.
Since the start of COVID-19, many children have not had access to the nutrition and physical activity they would have received in school. This combined with the stress and change of routines resulting from the pandemic has accelerated the childhood obesity epidemic.
While childhood obesity has been plaguing the United States for years, pediatricians have seen a stark increase in abnormal rates of weight gain over the past year, and it may have lasting effects on children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who put on excess weight face a greater long-term risk of health issues, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, high cholesterol, asthma and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
The good news is it’s never too late to help set a healthy course for your child and your family. Dr. Arethusa Kirk, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare, shares warning signs and ways to help keep children active and healthy:
What warning signs should parents be aware of?
If you notice any changes in your child’s weight, the first step is to determine the underlying cause. There is a difference between normal body changes that come with routine growth and development of growing children and rapid weight gain that indicates a more serious health issue. If your child suddenly gains 10-20 pounds, this may require a deeper investigation and a consultation with your pediatrician or family practice provider.
With the pandemic, health providers are seeing heightened depression and anxiety from limited social interaction for both children and adults. In states of depression, eating habits and appetite can change which can result in excess snacking and extended time spent inactive. Ask questions to understand your child’s motivations. Are they eating out of hunger, just boredom or when they feel emotional or anxious? The more you understand the motivation and cause, the better the ability to intervene and enlist the help of the right professionals like your pediatrician.
Ways to keep your child active and healthy
Replace screen time with family time
With the shift to virtual learning, it’s not uncommon for children to sit idle for hours staring at a screen. To combat this, set a daily limit on screen time for all members of the household. Then use that extra time to engage in activities that keep your family physically and mentally active. Building in “movement snacks” such as stretches, jogging in place or dancing during the school day can be a mood booster and get kids moving.
Encourage healthy nutritional habits
While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying treats in moderation, setting expectations around snacking is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. When kids are at home all day, they’re more prone to excessive snacking. Curb those cravings by limiting snacks in general. Making healthy options visible and unhealthy options invisible using a ‘this not that’ approach such as carrots and hummus instead of chips or cookies will help set patterns and habits for building healthy choices that have the potential to last a lifetime.
Reestablish a family routine
The structure and predictability that came with a normal school schedule can be difficult to reestablish or replicate in hybrid, virtual and in-school settings but maintaining regular sleep and meal patterns can be a great starting point. Reestablishing a set of patterns and routines in the new normals as they continue to evolve helps everyone in the household feel a sense of control and understanding of expectations. The bonus is, not only will a bedtime and meal routine help children stay focused during the day, it will also help them maintain a healthy weight.
Supporting your child — no matter what
While you help your child on their journey to a healthier lifestyle, remember to demonstrate compassion and understanding to your children as well as yourself. How you approach your child’s weight challenges will ultimately define how they view themselves. Be sure to provide daily encouragement, pointing out what your child is doing well. If you maintain a positive and supportive approach, the results will follow.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician
If you’re worried your child is putting on too much weight, reach out to their providers. A pediatrician will consider your child’s history of growth and development in the full context of their medical history. This can help determine if your child’s weight is in an unhealthy range and if more lifestyle changes are needed.
While busy schedules and competing demands can often get in the way of good intentions, every parent wants to ensure their child grows up healthy. Each new day provides a fresh opportunity to make the commitment, choices and changes needed to keep your child on a path toward a lifetime of health and wellness.