Photo: Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media
A new survey from a health and fitness website states that children in the United States have gained an average of seven pounds during the quarantine, and those in Connecticut have gained an average of 5.5 pounds.
The statistics are not surprising to some local health experts, who say many aspects of quarantine could affect children’s health.
This month, the health and fitness website, Total Shape, published the results of a survey of 5,000 parents living on the East Coast and found that 55 percent were concerned about their child’s recent weight gain. Most of those attributed the weight increase to lack of regular exercise and change in diet.
“After starting to spot reports being published that indicated adults had been gaining weight in lockdown, we were interested to see if children had been impacted in a similar way,” said Tyler Sellers, a fitness coach at Total Shape.
Of the 15 East Coast states included in the survey, New Jersey had the highest average weight gain, at 10.2 pounds, and Rhode Island had the lowest, at 2.1 pounds. Connecticut ranked 10th with 5.5 pounds.
Between 300 and 350 parents of children age 5 to 16 years old were surveyed in each state, and asked how much weight they believe their child had gained between March and June. The results were used to calculate an average for each state, then for the East Coast.
It’s hard to know how accurate the survey results are without more details about the process, said Alvin Tran, an assistant professor in the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences.
“With any study, how the participants were sampled is something to consider,” he said. “For example, perhaps only parents who felt their children were gaining weight were more likely to respond to the survey than other parents. That could lead to bias results in favor of a higher weight average overall.”
But, he said, as someone who studies nutrition and body image, “the results are interesting.”
Tran said he’s more interested in learning about the reasons behind any pediatric weight gains than tallying the pounds themselves.
“What are the underlying causes here?” he said. “Is it children’s way of dealing with underlying stress? If so, we need to have a conversation about that.”
Other experts agreed the survey highlights the need to reassess the impact the pandemic is having on every aspect of children’s lives.
“Childhood weight gain during the pandemic represents an unintended public health consequence of lockdown,” said Jacqueline Vernarelli, assistant professor in the Sacred Heart University Department of Public Health, and director of research education and consultation.
She said any quarantine-linked weight gains is likely tied to three factors — an increase in screen time, decreased physical activity and increasingly limited food options. Many of those are related to schools closing, resulting in classes moving online (more screen time) and decreased access to gyms and playgrounds (less physical activity).
Dr. Magna Dias, chairwoman of pediatrics at Bridgeport Hospital, said in many cases, these children are emulating their parents who also tend to be more stressed, sedentary and snack-focused during this time.
“We aren’t being the best role models right now,” she said.
Sellers said, though the numbers might seem alarming, pandemic weight gains can be addressed by a few simple changes. The important thing, he said, is to not make children feel shamed or stigmatized.
“It’s crucial that children are not made to feel like they’re being singled out,” he said. “Use positive language when discussing activity and food, and refrain from using words like ‘bad,’ ‘naughty’ and ‘lazy’ when describing foods and exercise. You want your child to enjoy this new way of life, and parents play a key role in how they interpret and embrace the change.”
Dias agreed that parents are crucial in creating healthy behaviors for everyone, not just children. She said families with the benefit of a backyard or a walkable neighborhood can use those to add physical activities into their day. But even those with smaller space who can’t spend much time outside can do simple activities indoors, such as jumping jacks or dancing to music, Dias said.
Tran added that emphasizing whole grains and fruits and vegetables is also important. But mainly he stressed the importance of not being too hard on children during these tense times.
“We should not be blaming and shaming children for any weight gain they may be experiencing,” he said. “Children are going through a very sensitive time in their life. It’s important to be very careful.”