Americans may be feeling the effects of COVID-19 around their waists for decades

There’s no doubt that the 2020 coronavirus pandemic will continue to influence and shape society for decades to come. Long after COVID-19 is brought under control, the self-assessment that it’s causing among entire nations and individuals alike will resonate long after like ripples on a pond. Many of these changes are fairly predictable; better hygiene practices, preemptive medical cooperation between nations, and (hopefully) improved paid sick leave for millions of American workers are just a few fairly reasonable predictions. 

Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have another prediction, and it probably isn’t one most people have on their minds right now. They predict that due to nationwide public school closures, the already significant issue of childhood obesity in the US is going to escalate greatly.

The extra pounds put on by our nation’s children during this lockdown period will linger for years to come as the youth of today develop into tomorrow’s adults. Just a few months ago, a study predicted that close to half of the United States population will be obese by 2030. One can only imagine that the pandemic has sped up that timeline.

Everyone is hopeful that school and business closures in the United States are loosened sooner rather than later, but at this point, trying to predict when that will happen is a fool’s errand. Some school districts have already announced that they don’t expect to reopen at all this academic year. All in all, the study’s authors estimate that most U.S. children will be enjoying a “summer vacation” this year that’s twice as long as usual.

Historically, U.S. children tend to gain more weight over the summer than during the school year. But, why is that? Shouldn’t summer be a time to get outside as opposed to all those hours spent sitting inside classrooms and eating unhealthy cafeteria food during the school year? A definitive reason hasn’t been agreed upon, but many theorize it largely comes down to more free time and lack of a set schedule. Kids don’t have a whole lot to do during June, July, and August and subsequently, head to the kitchen more often for snacks.

Now, let’s apply that train of thought to what’s happening in the world today. All of us, adults and children alike, are stuck inside. Gyms, playgrounds, and athletic fields are closed. Even if an adolescent did want to use this free time to exercise it’s much more difficult right now to get some physical activity in. This, combined with so many Americans’ strategy of stocking up on food for a long lockdown period, has created the perfect conditions for a dramatic increase in childhood obesity.

Researchers also noted that African-American and Hispanic children, as well as kids who already have a weight problem, usually gain more weight during the summer months. Urban children are at a higher risk as well. While kids in suburbia at least have a backyard to stretch their legs in, children living in cities don’t share the same luxury. 

“There could be long-term consequences for weight gained while children are out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Andrew Rundle, DrPH, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia, in a press release. “Research shows that weight gained over the summer months is maintained during the school year and accrues summer to summer. When a child experiences obesity, even at a young age, they are at risk for higher, unhealthy weight, all the way into middle age.” 

There’s also the entertainment aspect of all this. Many adolescents have always been happy to play video games for hours on end, but suddenly that’s now an activity that’s been normalized and even encouraged. Everyone is turning to digital entertainment right now. From Netflix to Xbox Live, online forms of entertainment consumption are way up across the board. These activities are a fun way to pass the time, but they won’t help anyone avoid putting on weight through all of this.

As far as possible solutions, researchers suggest that schools start offering online fitness or gym classes for students just like any other subject. They also recommend that farmer’s markets, a valuable source of healthy non-processed foods, be designated as essential businesses and be permitted to stay open.

The COVID‐19 pandemic is responsible for widespread sickness and death, straining healthcare systems, shutting down economies, and closing school districts,” Rundle concludes. “While it is a priority to mitigate its immediate impact, it is important to consider ways to prevent its long-term effects, including new risks for childhood obesity.”This study focused on America’s youth, but many of its findings are just as applicable for the rest of us. We’re all vulnerable to weight gain during this pandemic. 

The celebrities and wealthy of the world have stocked home gyms to maintain their physiques, but the rest of us are now faced with the challenge of getting in meaningful workouts with only what we have at home. It’s an obstacle, for sure, but it’s a problem that ultimately pales in comparison to what else is happening right now. If Americans of every age can recognize the threat that this isolation period poses to our national fitness, perhaps many of us can come out of lockdown with a better handle on our physical health.

The full study can be found here, published in Obesity.