Is Virtual Learning Making Our Children Less Healthy?
Updated: Mar 15
It’s 2:00 pm and you and your child head to the kitchen for a snack. Neither of you have been outside all day. Instead, you’ve both been in front of your computer since 9:00 am and need to grab quick bite to eat before the next class/meeting starts. As you go to raid the pantry, you look at your child and think - is virtual learning making him less healthy? The short answer may be yes, but the reality is, it doesn’t have to be.
The Childhood Obesity Epidemic
Childhood obesity rates on are the rise with nearly one in three children either overweight or obese (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2020). At the elementary school level, 18.4 percent of children ages six to eleven are obese (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2019). This rising obesity rate is putting millions of children at increased risk for health issues such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and other chronic conditions (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2020). And unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating these issues in many cases.
While schools remain closed, children are not only losing access to important educational resources, but in many cases, access to healthy meals as well (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2020). Families are stocking up on shelf-stable foods which commonly are ultra-processed and calorie-dense, and with children home all day this is resulting in the consumption of higher calories diets (Rundle et al., 2020). In addition, virtual learning limits normal school-based opportunities for physical activity including traditional physical education classes, outdoor breaks/recess, and organized sports (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2020).
As the pandemic raises the rates of food insecurity, increases consumption of processed foods, and decreases opportunities to exercise, you may be thinking “how much of an impact does schools being closed have on the health of our children” (Workman, 2020)? Well, according to recent research, keeping schools closed through the end of 2020 could result in a 2.4 percent increase in obesity rates among kindergarten students and approximately 1.27 million new cases of childhood obesity could result by March 2021 if school closures persist (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2020). Those are some pretty staggering statistics.
Now with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise around the country, it’s looking like virtual learning may be our new normal for a while and the reality is, this situation isn’t ideal for any of us. So, what can we do? Well, we can try to make the best of it and view it as an opportunity. Here's three ways to establish healthy habits for us and our children.
First, Establish a New Routine
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has significantly altered our daily schedules. Regardless if you were previously going out to work every day or working in your home, my guess is things look different for you now than they did back in February. Though you may be feeling out of sorts trying to adapt to an ever-changing environment, children especially need a consistent schedule to regulate their internal biological clocks (University of Central Florida, 2020). They do their best when they have a routine and we can help them by scheduling learning, meals and snacks, and outside activities at the same time each day (University of Central Florida, 2020). And it isn’t just about time, when kids are at school, they are used to certain portion sizes at meals, and snacks are regulated helping to limit the mindless eating throughout the entire day (University of Central Florida, 2020). Setting a snack schedule and menu can help set expectations and keep children on a normal routine (University of Central Florida, 2020).
Next, Fill the House with Healthy Foods
It's like the saying "out of sight, out of mind." If unhealthy foods aren't in the home then you will be less likely to consume them. When sitting in front of a computer all day, it’s likely that we, and our children, will be tempted to snack more, so making sure to stock the fridge and pantry with easy, healthy options is very important. Whole fruits and vegetables, low or fat-free dairy products, and whole grains make for good options. For more healthy snack ideas, check out the Action for Healthy Kids blog. It is also a good time to cook more at home. Research shows that families eating less frequently in restaurants may help reduce the risk of childhood obesity (Workman, 2020). If food insecurity is an issue and your children used to get many of their meals from school, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working with states to continue providing meals to students (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2020). The USDA provides an interactive map to find locations and hours of operation for sites distributing meals.
Finally, Find Ways to be More Active
The CDC (2020) recommends that children and teens between the ages of six to 17 should get at least 60 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous” physical activity every day. Unfortunately, over 75 percent of children in the United States don’t meet that recommendation (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2020). Tips from the CDC on staying active include playing active games with your family, getting outside whenever possible for a walk, jog, or bike ride, and even making your TV watching more active by doing jumping jacks, push-ups, or running in place during commercials (CDC, 2020). The CDC provides additional guidelines and recommendations on how to stay active while staying safe during the pandemic.
Remember, we are our children’s biggest role models and during this pandemic we are all spending a lot more time at home together. So, let’s make the best of it! This is a great opportunity to implement healthier habits that will benefit both us and our families.
Keywords: Virtual learning, COVID-19, childhood obesity
Action for Healthy Kids. (2018, June 8). Snack Time at Home. https://www.actionforhealthykids.org/snack-time-at-home/
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020, August 20). Childhood Nutrition. HealthyChildren.Org. https://www.healthychildren.org/english/healthy-living/nutrition/pages/childhood-nutrition.aspx
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2019, June 24). Childhood Obesity Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html#:~:text=Prevalence%20of%20Childhood%20Obesity%20in%20the%20United%20States&text=For%20children%20and%20adolescents%20aged
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2020, September 10). How to Be Physically Active While Social Distancing. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/how-to-be-physically-active-while-social-distancing.html
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2020). State of Childhood Obesity - Prioritizing Children’s Health During the Pandemic. https://media.stateofobesity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/13205332/State-of-Childhood-Obesity-10-14-20-Final-WEB.pdf
Rundle, A. G., Park, Y., Herbstman, J. B., Kinsey, E. W., & Wang, Y. C. (2020). COVID-19 Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children. Obesity, 28(6). https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.22813
United States Department of Agriculture [USDA]. (2020, November 5). Find Meals for Kids When Schools are Closed. Www.Fns.Usda.Gov. https://www.fns.usda.gov/meals4kids
University of Central Florida. (2020, October 8). Structure, Routine Can Help Combat Childhood Obesity. UCF Today. https://www.ucf.edu/news/structure-and-routine-can-help-combat-childhood-obesity-especially-during-difficult-times-like-covid-19/
Workman, J. (2020). How Much May COVID‐19 School Closures Increase Childhood Obesity? Obesity, 28(10), 1787–1787. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.22960