Canceled soccer practices. Shuttered dance rehearsals.
With worldwide lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the normal rites and rituals of childhood and adolescence froze.
Children around the world were stuck at home, slipping into more video game playing, more television watching and more just sitting around. It’s a natural progression, especially when there’s not much to do during a lockdown.
Lockdowns could be putting kids at higher risk for becoming overweight or obese, according to an observational study recently published in the journal Obesity.
The study analyzed 41 children with obesity under lockdown in Verona, Italy, during March and April, whose activities had previously been monitored last year, prior to the pandemic.
The Italian children in the study were already enrolled in a treatment program for obesity, regularly filling out behavioral questionnaires designed to tease out how they were faring related to known obesity risk factors.
Compared with last year, the subjects are eating an additional meal each day and sleeping an extra half hour daily. Whether it be for school or for staying in touch with friends, they’re spending five hours more than usual in front of screens, and they’re eating significantly more junk food and red meat. Finally, the kids spent two fewer hours each week engaging in physical activity.
“Along came Covid-19 unexpectedly, and it really turned lifestyles upside down for many, many families,” said Myles Faith, a professor of education at the University at Buffalo and a coauthor on the study.
The behavioral shifts in the overweight kids observed in this study are the same red flags obesity researchers have been studying for years. For instance, studies have shown that the prevalence of obesity grows only during summer recess. That weight gain is more common in Hispanic and African American populations, and it can accrue from summer to summer.
Faith pointed to a recent perspective shared in Obesity explaining that Covid-19 lockdowns exhibit the same established characteristics underlying predictable summer increases in childhood obesity.
But doubling down on habits that science knows can help your family reestablish a healthy lifestyle and stay active despite the quarantine, he noted.
Experts offer tips on curbing childhood obesity
The most important way that families can push back together against less healthy lockdown habits is by creating a culture within the household centered on healthy living.
Faith ticked off a handful of tips that could be useful in helping talk to your kids and create habits that step around obesity.
Healthier foods at home: It’s important to limit the number of junk foods or other less healthy options available and prevent children from eating too many junky snacks.
For kids with a penchant for the sweet or salty, it’s possible to build on it in a more positive direction.
If your kids find ranch dressing delicious, for instance, pair it with more nutritious foods such as broccoli or carrots to make them more appealing, said Alexis Wood, an assistant professor of nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine and author of a new American Heart Association statement on children’s dietary habits.
Role modeling: To paraphrase Gandhi, you can be the change you see in your family, starting with more walks and runs. “Kids are more likely to follow along” if they see you eating healthy foods, Faith said.
Limit screen time: With schoolwork, activities and regular social time shifting to video chats, screen time is on the rise. Experts recommended parents still try to limit how much time kids spend looking at phones, computers and TV screens. But keep in mind that not all screen time is created equal, especially if kids need screens as a vital social outlet.
The UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Health released guidelines last year recommending that parents build families activities around screen time, in order to get a firmer handle on the phenomena.
Eat family meals together: Breaking bread together has long been a tentpole of strong family dynamics, according to child development specialists. With more people working at home during the pandemic, this one may be easier to keep up than before the pandemic.
Routines: “A key word is structure and recognizing how hard this is,” Faith said. “We have to be empathizing with what families are going through.” Making sure routines are vital, lockdown or not, now’s a time to be focus on being a little more flexible and humane with your schedule.
“We know kids today are more anxious than ever, and we know at least some of the reason why is that they don’t have enough downtime,” CNN parenting contributor Elissa Strauss said in March.
“I’m all for some structure during this period, for both kids’ sanity and parents’, but I think we should balance it out with some good old-fashioned messing around the house,” she added.
Positive reinforcement: When kids are getting outside to exercise and eating fruits and vegetables, don’t forget to praise them for it. If you’re drinking a fruit smoothie or doing Pilates, make sure kids see you “enthusiastically enjoying” them, Wood said.
Self-monitoring: You can manage what you can measure. “Keep a little journal about what’s going right,” Faith said. Keep building on that.
Get moving despite the pandemic
Some of the usual summer activities may be less hoppin’ this year or will be on limited schedules due to the pandemic.
CNN has stepped into to help fill the gap with a list of 100 things to do with young ones in lieu of the usual fare. Some of our staff’s ideas for ways to get moving include having a water balloon fight, planting a vegetable garden, or hosting an outdoor game day.
You might even enroll in virtual dance classes.
One way parents can motivate kids to be active is by combining activities they don’t like with things they enjoy more.
“Any time you can combine something that they like with something that they don’t like, and you can mash it together a little bit, they want to do it,” said Nikki Murray, a YMCA camp director in Youngstown, Ohio, on the podcast “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
One of the methods Murray likes is Cosmic Kids yoga, which makes the practice more appealing by fusing it with themes from “Star Wars.” You can learn new positions while exploring the story of Rey Skywalker, for instance.
It takes a little creativity, but there’s plenty of ways kids can avoid screen time, stay moving and have fun.
“We came up with very simple scavenger hunts that anyone could do. It’s just thinking about all the crazy things that you have in your home, like like tools in the garage or maybe stuff in the kitchen,” Murray said. “Just being silly with it, like something green that could protect you from the rain. I had a kid pull a bucket from under his sink and he put it on top of his head like, look, this is the perfect rain hat.”
The pandemic is a research opportunity
Global lockdowns during the pandemic have created a unique scientific opportunity, Faith said. The sharp contrast in lifestyles for just about everyone has created a sort of quasi-experiment.
“We need to study this however we can,” he added.
One shortcoming in the publication, he noted, is that it’s an observational study, so it’s hard to establish cause-and-effect relationships. We know that sedentary habits are linked to less healthy habits during the pandemic, but it’s not yet time to officially say lockdowns cause obesity outright.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“We really need to let the science and research guide us on that,” he said.
But despite the upheaval, many of the foundations of our modern understanding of obesity appear to remain useful. Whatever is happening outside the walls of our home, we still have agency to control our own little bubble.
“Childhood obesity is a family affair, it’s a family issue,” Faith said. “Parents are really critical agents of change.”
“My hope is that there will be a lot more research on this so that we can guide parents not just on what to do in general but now during the pandemic also,” he continued. “Parents and families can learn a lot about their strength and their resilience.”
CNN’s Katia Hetter and David Allan contributed to this story.