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Published June 16, 2020

By Marcene Robinson

COVID-19 stay-at-home orders worsen childhood obesity

Research finds obese children under stay-at-home orders in Italy were less active, ate more junk food and watched more TV

Stay-at-home orders implemented worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic worsened diets, sleep and physical activity for children with obesity, according to research co-authored by Myles Faith, PhD chair and professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education.

The study, published in April in Obesity, examined the behaviors of 41 overweight children in March and April in Verona, Italy.

“The tragic COVID-19 pandemic has collateral effects extending beyond direct viral infection,” said Faith, PhD, a childhood obesity expert. “Children and teens struggling with obesity are placed in an unfortunate position of isolation that appears to create an unfavorable environment for maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviors.”

Compared to data recorded a year prior, the children ate an additional meal per day; slept an extra half hour per day; added nearly five hours per day in front of phone, computer and television screens; and dramatically increased their consumption of red meat, sugary drinks and junk foods.

Physical activity went down by more than two hours per week.

“Recognizing these adverse collateral effects of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is critical in avoiding the depreciation of hard-fought weight control efforts,” said Faith.

The study was led by Steven Heymsfield, MD, professor at the Louisiana State University Pennington Biomedical Research Center; and Angelo Pietrobelli, MD, professor at the University of Verona in Italy.

Children and adolescents typically gain more weight during summer vacation than during the school year. This fact led the researchers to wonder whether being homebound this spring would have a similar effect, said Faith.

“School environments provide structure and routine around mealtimes, physical activity and sleep—three predominant lifestyle factors implicated in obesity risk,” he said.

The surveyed children and teens with obesity in Verona, Italy, were part of an ongoing long-term study. Information about diet, activity and sleep was collected three weeks into Italy’s mandatory national lockdown and compared to data gathered in 2019. Questions focused on physical activity, screen time, sleep, eating habits, and the consumption of red meat, pasta, snacks, fruits and vegetables.

Results indicated that children with obesity fare worse with weight control at home than they do at school.

“Depending on the duration of the lockdown, the excess weight gained may not be easily reversible and might contribute to obesity during adulthood if healthier behaviors are not re-established,” said Faith. “This is because childhood and adolescent obesity tend to … predict weight status as adults.”

Government officials and policymakers should consider the potential harmful effects of lockdowns on young people with obesity when making decisions about restrictions, he said.

There is also a need for new telemedicine programs to encourage families to make healthy choices during periods of lockdown, said Faith. He is now at work on just such a solution. He and colleagues are in the midst of a National Institutes of Health-funded study to test a treatment for childhood obesity using telemedicine at home.

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