September 23, 2021

Pandemic’s heavy toll: Excess weight gain in kids

After a year of remote learning and decreased physical activity, childhood obesity is on the rise. Parents and caregivers can help children get back on track.

Drew Meyers (center) encouraged his boys to stay active during the pandemic by getting outdoors and doing something they all enjoyed.

When schools were closed and organized sports and activities canceled during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Drew Meyers, a Kaiser Permanente member in Northern California, struggled to keep his kids active.

The advertising executive and father of 2 sons, ages 14 and 12, watched in dismay as online learning, online gaming, and online socializing took over their lives and lethargy sunk in.

“Everyone, the kids and the parents, struggled with a certain complacency about being stuck inside,” Meyers said. “That was reinforced by the fact that everything can be delivered to us at home. It was a vicious cycle.”

Meyers was right to be concerned. During the COVID-19 pandemic, kids’ average body weight increased, and childhood obesity rose significantly, according to a Kaiser Permanente study. The sharpest increases were among children age 5 to 11. 

Inactivity and unhealthy eating habits

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at nearly 200,000 children, age 5 to 17, from March 1, 2019, to January 31, 2021. The findings were striking.

  • In every age category, children gained more weight during the COVID-19 pandemic than before the pandemic. Children age 5 to 15 gained over 5 pounds more compared to the same time period of the previous year, and 16- to 17-year-olds gained more than 2 pounds over the prior year.
  • Before the pandemic, about 36% of 5- to 11-year-olds were considered overweight or obese, and that increased to nearly 46%. The increase was mostly the result of a rise in obesity among children age 5 to 11.

“We saw and we continue to see huge issues of inactivity and unhealthy eating habits,” said Kaiser Permanente childhood obesity expert and pediatrician Allison Collins, MD. “Many of my patients who were not previously overweight now are. And among those who were previously overweight, I’ve seen their weight go even higher.”

Obesity has many contributing factors, but there are ways caregivers can help children get healthy and stay healthy.

Helping kids make healthy choices

Dr. Collins runs Kaiser Permanente’s Healthy Eating, Active Living program, in Santa Clara, California. The program helps children, teens, and their families make lifestyle choices that promote a healthy weight and good habits. Despite children going back to school and the loosening of some COVID-19 restrictions, Dr. Collins warns that we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to getting our kids to eat healthy and be active at pre-COVID-19 levels.

“We need to immediately begin to invest in monitoring the worsening obesity epidemic and develop diet and activity interventions to help children achieve and maintain a healthy weight,” said the study’s senior author, Corinna Koebnick, PhD, of the Kaiser Permanente Department of Research & Evaluation in Southern California. “Obesity has many contributing factors, but there are ways caregivers can help children get healthy and stay healthy.”

Koebnick recommends small changes, such as cutting back on added sugars and going for family walks and bike rides. A great time to get started is September, National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Parents can support healthy eating habits by swapping processed snack foods for fruits and vegetables, and adhering to a regular schedule for meals,” Collins said. “Parents can model healthy habits by making sure they eat well and stay active, too.”

Get more tips to help children maintain a healthy weight and learn the 5 things you can do at home to prevent childhood obesity