The stay-at-home orders during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 led to decreased physical activity in children and an increase in screen time, finds two new studies from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
“The stay-at-home orders from March to May 2020 created massive shifts in work, school and family life,” said Amy Eyler, associate professor and an expert on physical activity and childhood obesity. “The majority of parents in these studies reported a perceived decrease in physical activity of their children during that time. This decrease, even if temporary, can negatively impact children’s health.”
Regular participation in physical activity is consistently associated with many physical and mental health benefits in children, and there is evidence to support sustainability of these benefits into adulthood. Despite this evidence, increasing the prevalence of physical activity remains a public health challenge. The majority of children in the United States do not meet the current recommendation that children and youth should achieve at least 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day. Rates of physical activity among children and adolescents also vary by age and gender. There are significant decreases in physical activity with increasing age, especially for girls, with more age-related differences in elementary school than upper grade levels.
Restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have added unique challenges to promoting physical activity in children. In an effort to prevent widespread infection of the virus, 42 states and territories issued mandatory stay-at-home orders from March 1 through May 31, 2020. Places where people maintain close physical contact with one another (e.g., schools) were required to close. Since schools are a primary resource for youth activity, mandated closures likely impacted physical activity. Physical education and after-school sports programs were halted or limited to virtual options during this time. Opportunities for active commuting to school and recess play were also eliminated by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Other extra-curricular, community-based opportunities for physical activity (e.g., dance lessons, sports leagues) were halted.
In the first study, Eyler and her co-authors surveyed parents of children aged 5-12. Data from 245 parents were analyzed. A majority (63.7%) of parents reported a decrease in children’s physical activity during the stay-at-home time. More parents indicated that social barriers such as the lack of access to playmates were a bigger issue than the lack of places to play.
In the second study, Eyler and her co-authors found that screen time increased as physical activity decreased.
“We don’t know the longer-term impact of these behavior changes,” Eyler said. “Will children resume pre-COVID activity levels? We need more research to help us to track this over time.”