The pandemic has kept kids indoors and away from their regular activities, raising alarms about rising childhood obesity.
With schools closed and team sports cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic, Drew Meyers of Oakland, California, has struggled to keep his kids active.
The advertising executive and father of 2 sons ages 14 and 12 watched with dismay as online learning, gaming, and socializing took over their lives and lethargy sunk in.
“Everyone, the kids and the parents, struggle with a certain complacency about being stuck inside,” Meyers said. “That is reinforced by the fact that everything can be delivered to us at home. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Luckily, Meyers’ flexible work schedule allows him to take his sons to the beach to surf 1 or 2 days a week. He also creates incentives to get his kids out of the house to walk the dog or go skateboarding.
“All of us parents experience that rut of letting our kids do nothing, but you have to consciously decide to break out of it and force them to go outside,” he said.
The role of parents in motivating their children to stay active is especially important during the pandemic, said Kaiser Permanente childhood obesity expert and pediatrician Allison Collins, MD.
“We’re seeing huge issues of inactivity,” said Dr. Collins, who runs Kaiser Permanente’s Healthy Eating, Active Living program, in Santa Clara, California. The program, now entirely online, helps children, teens, and their families make lifestyle choices that promote a healthy weight and good habits.
“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,” she said.
While Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data currently pegs childhood obesity at 18.5% nationwide for kids ages 2 to 18, that figure is predicted to rise significantly as a result of the pandemic. Children with obesity are at greater risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and more.
Overcoming a fear that kids who go outside will contract COVID-19 is one of the first major hurdles many parents face, Dr. Collins said.
“Not only is it safe for children to go outside, it’s good for them,” she said, noting that exposure to COVID-19 is less likely to happen outdoors. “Just taking your kids to a park or the beach will naturally get them running around.”
While they’re outside, children should stay at least 6 feet apart from people who don’t live with them, and kids 2 and older should wear masks when they encounter people who may get closer.
A mother of 2 children ages 6 and 9, Dr. Collins suggests using creative incentives to get kids motivated to exercise (but cautions against using food as a reward).
“I got my kids some cheap step counters,” she said. “If they meet a goal for a certain number of steps 5 days a week, they get a reward like a gift card to buy music.”
Playing games with dice or cards can be another fun way to get kids moving. For each number rolled or drawn, challenge kids to do the same number of pushups or jumping jacks.
“We also went to the local park and used chalk to create a fitness course with activities at different stations, like dancing or running in place. Other people in the neighborhood started using the course too,” Dr. Collins said.
For kids who just can’t seem to tear themselves away from their computers, parents can use a timer to remind children to stand up and move for a few minutes — “anything to stop them from sitting.”
Find more fitness tips for kids and teens.