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We’ve made it through four months of this pandemic and the coronavirus seems to want to stick around for the indefinite future. While most people are aware of the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, there’s another significant impact that is hitting almost everyone, including children and adolescents.

Kids are gaining weight.

Researchers from the University of Buffalo in New York recently studied 41 children in Italy who were confined in March and April. Compared to the year before, most children in the study ate one more meal each day, increased screen time by almost five hours each day, increased their intake of snacks and junk food and decreased their physical activity by at least two hours each week. I’ve seen similar trends in many of my patients, with some adolescents gaining as much as 20 to 30 pounds in the past few months.

When we consider the significant lifestyle changes school shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have caused, it’s easy to see how this happened. For many kids, school is a main source of physical activity (walking to and from school, walking between classes, sweating in gym class, participating in school sports). When schools closed, kids were stuck at home and sitting in front of a computer or at a desk doing assignments.

With stay-at-home orders and the closing of gyms and playgrounds, kids had fewer options for physical activity – especially during March when the weather was so poor.

To make matters worse, healthier school lunches were often replaced with whatever food kids could find at home, including junk food and sugary beverages. All of these factors contributed to a large amount of weight gain in a short amount of time.

Now that we’ve seen this trend, we need to figure out how to reverse it, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in Ohio continues to rise.

You can start by focusing on well-balanced nutrition and physical activity. To improve your kids’ eating habits when they’re staying at home, try to keep the house full of healthy snacks, including fresh fruit and vegetables. Steer kids to these healthier options and away from chips and sweets.

For older kids who may be staying home unsupervised, prepping meals can be useful to make sure they eat the right kinds of food while you’re at work. Hold off buying juice and pop, and encourage them to drink water or milk.

Increasing physical activity while maintaining social distance is still possible. The best way to do this is to encourage your kids to go outside more. Smaller children can play in the backyard, ride bikes or go to a playground or park as long as there aren’t too many other families around. Older kids can go for runs or bike rides on their own. Online workout videos are also a great option, especially for bad weather days. You can go for a walk as a family, either before or after dinner, or take a family hike on weekends.

Getting outside will not only increase physical activity and reduce excess weight, it will boost the mental health of you and your child, potentially decreasing feelings of stress or even depression.

Yes, there are ways you can focus on healthier living despite the restrictions of the pandemic. You and your family can come out of this as fit as you started. And, of course, as you get there, remember to keep wearing a mask in public and washing your hands.

Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the CJN. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.

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