Health experts worry remote learning could lead to childhood obesity

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As the pandemic carries on and millions of children return to online schooling, doctors say students are at higher risk of excessive weight gain that could lead to obesity.

That's because virtual learning eliminates some of the physical activity children would normally get at school, such as walking to classes, participating in physical activities, and running during recess.

UTHealth pediatricians say they are already seeing excess weight gain during the pandemic, or the "Quarantine 15," affecting younger patients.

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"Once in-person school closed down and kids had to shift over to remote learning, we lost some of that built-in physical activity that comes with going to school in-person, including gym class and all the extracurricular activities, and it is a legitimate concern that when kids are now staying at home most of the time doing remote learning that they're missing out on those activities," said Joyce Samuel, a pediatric nephrologist with UT Physicians and associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

"We have had some patients with considerable unexpected amount of weight gain during that time that we think are related to changes in eating habits and then also decreasing physical activity levels. We know that there are also changes in their sleeping habits and that can affect your weight gain. Kids are staying up a lot later on their devices a lot more and those are regular sleep habits can lead to weight gain as well."

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Samuel understands it can be tough for parents to keep their children active during the pandemic due to social distancing, but says there are still ways to fit in physical activity at home.

"There are some things that we encourage parents to do to get their kids active again," she explained. "Some of those things include going out for walks regularly in their neighborhood or jogs. Those are things that you could do with your family and you can maintain social distancing and stay away from people who are not part of your household, but it's a way of getting fresh air and regular exercise without relying on gyms or rec centers or even needing any kind of equipment."

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Not only can regular exercise and a healthy diet help control weight, but it can help students get the right amount of sleep. Reducing screen time can also help reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

Samuel recommends eight to 10 hours of sleep a night for teenagers and at least nine hours of sleep for children between the ages of six and 12.

"We do know that obesity is linked to a number of different complications, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and a variety of other conditions, and so trying to maintain a healthy weight at this age is important because it helps kids to develop healthy habits that they can carry-on into adulthood," Samuel said.

The Center for Obesity and Medicine and Metabolic Performance at UTHealth has the following guidance for maintaining a healthy diet at home and minimizing the risk of weight gain.

Diet

  • Provide children with meals that include both protein and produce.
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables are a good budget-friendly alternative to fresh produce, as long as there is no added sugar, syrup, or salt.
  • Limit the amount of unhealthy drinks and snacks.
  • Avoid snacks high in fat and sugar, like chips, cookies, and gummy snacks.
  • Stay away from sugary beverages such as soda, juices, and sports drinks, and drink water instead.


Exercise
  • Start simple - move three to five minutes every hour.
  • Jumping rope or running helps to strengthen bones.
  • Playing games like tug-of-war to strengthen muscles.
  • Aerobic activity, like bike riding or walking, is healthy for the heart.
  • Put time on a calendar to exercise several times a week.
  • Keep things fun and try new exercises such as outdoor sports, scooter riding, tag and neighborhood scavenger hunts


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