Study finds link between the COVID pandemic and lack of physical activity among children

A new report from WHO said that the COVID-19 pandemic led to more screen time and less physical activity among European children.
A new report from WHO said that the COVID-19 pandemic led to more screen time and less physical activity among European children. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Oceane Duboust
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A new report from WHO said that the COVID-19 pandemic led to more screen time and less physical activity among European children.

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The COVID-19 pandemic adversely impacted the health of children and is linked to a decrease in physical activity among European kids, according to a new report.

A study conducted in 17 European and Central Asian countries by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the pandemic led to more screen time and less physical activity among children aged between 7 and 9.

This “[mirrored] an increase in overweight children in the same age range,” WHO said.

“We cannot afford to ignore these trends [in the European region], one in three children is living with overweight and obesity, and already fruit and vegetable consumption is low,” Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO Europe’s regional adviser for nutrition, said in a statement, while noting that the report highlights some positive and healthy changes such as families eating together.

The study conducted between 2021 and 2023 on more than 50,000 children found that more than a third of them increased their screen time amid the pandemic.

Moreover, around 23 per cent of them decreased the time spent outdoors during weekends, a rate that rose to 28 per cent for weekdays.

“I hope that this report will sound an alarm, pushing us to take urgent action to improve nutrition and physical activity patterns in the region, especially by creating environments that will support healthy behaviours,” Wickramasinghe added.

Tackling childhood obesity

Experts are concerned about the potential long-term consequences linked to childhood overweight and obesity which has globally quadrupled since 1990, according to the WHO.

Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for many conditions including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers.

A survey conducted last year showed that the prevalence of obesity and overweight was slightly higher among boys.

It also revealed that only 43 per cent of children consumed fresh fruit daily. Moreover, one in ten ate vegetables less than once a week.

“Equipping the [European region] and member states with concrete evidence of problematic outcomes of global pandemic-based behavioural changes will enable us to approach future health crises with greater strategy and sympathy,” said Dr Ana Rito, head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition and Childhood Obesity and one of the report’s co-authors.

Different measures recommended

One crucial aspect of combating obesity involves addressing the influence of marketing techniques on dietary choices, WHO said.

Restricting the marketing of unhealthy products, especially those high in sugar, salt, and fat, can help reduce people’s consumption of them, particularly among vulnerable populations such as children and adolescents.

Economic policies also play a vital role in shaping consumer behaviour and incentivising healthier choices such as taxes on sugary beverages and unhealthy snacks.

In addition to these interventions, community-based initiatives can help to promote healthy lifestyles and combat obesity such as school-based schemes to improve physical activity, WHO said.

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