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[COMMENTARY] Schools Need to Urgently Prioritize the Physical Health of Students

[COMMENTARY] Schools Need to Urgently Prioritize the Physical Health of Students

With signs of a forthcoming viral blizzard, we need to protect the most vulnerable, including children. 

 During the height of the pandemic, we learned deaths from COVID-19 are highly correlated with obesity.  Sadly children have not been spared – children with COVID-19 who are obese are hospitalized at three times the rate compared to their normal-weight peers. Recently, a CDC report indicated children had substantial and alarming weight gains during the pandemic. While the result of this study might not be that surprising, its message is urgent – action is needed now in order to curb childhood obesity inclines. 

(Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images)

 While the CDC report included calls to action, the urgency was understated. 

 Obesity is an underlying health condition that increases the risk of hospitalization and death after contracting COVID-19.  Other countries have already adopted targeted strategies to overcome childhood obesity, including banning junk food sales to children, limiting junk food advertisements until after 9 pm and providing healthier food options closer to the check-out. 

 In the United Kingdom, schools prioritized physical activity when students returned to school, because of substantial declines in students’ physical fitness. It’s time for the US to follow suit – we don’t have time to waste.

 Even though some of the biggest weight gains were observed in young school-aged children, physical activity in school is not prioritized.  Less than a year before the shutdown one study found that 77% of young children met or were at risk for meeting clinical criteria for motor skill delay by performing motor skills on the assessment below the 25th percentile. Young children, between 3 and 6 years, have fallen behind in motor skills like hopping, leaping, throwing, and catching compared to their same-aged peers from almost two decades earlier.

 “We know that kids have been gaining weight during the pandemic, but the numbers are shocking and worse than I expected”, stated Dr. Sarah Barlow, a childhood obesity specialist at Children’s Health in Dallas. For the past year and a half children have spent more time in front of screens and less time being active because they haven’t been walking or biking to school or other activities.

 Motor skills are important at any age but critical to developing early.  Children peak in their development of fundamental movement skills around the age of 7. Experts have found that contrary to popular belief,  proficient motor skills are learned, taught, and reinforced. Laying the foundation for an active lifestyle is important when considering that these behaviors are important in combating obesity.    

 As the CDC report indicated schools will play a critical role in overcoming the burdensome changes in child behaviors since the pandemic.  Three specific areas for districts and schools to over-invest in include: high-quality physical education, high-quality recess experiences, like facilitated play and games on the schoolyard, and classroom-based physical activity programs (CBPAP) – programs that incorporate brief stints of physical activity in the regular classroom. National frameworks on how to successfully implement and staff these initiatives need to be prioritized.

See Also

 Physical education is a part of a well-rounded education as identified in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and should already be included in every student’s education. High-quality recess is needed in all schools.  Facilitating high-quality recess, including structured and unstructured activities, is critical towards providing key opportunities for students to engage in and reap the benefits of physical activity amongst their peers and for fun.  CBPAPs are designed for small spaces, like a student’s regular classroom; and can be used to support students’ daily physical activity in small bursts of physical activity added to a student’s school day.

 Laying the foundation for an active lifestyle is important towards combating obesity.  Urgently prioritizing young children’s successful movement experiences now will have immediate and long-term health benefits.

About the Author

Megan MacDonald, Ph.D. is an associate professor of kinesiology in the College of Public Health & Human Sciences at Oregon State University and the IMPACT for Life Faculty Scholar. She is also the director of the early childhood research core at the university’s Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families.

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