CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, pediatricians are continuing to tackle a longstanding health challenge many families faced before the virus started spreading through our communities: childhood obesity.
For periods of time over the last year, children have been forced to stay home-- out of the classroom, shared play spaces, and organized sports that typically provide avenues for healthy meals and regular physical activity.
"Well before the pandemic, we knew that perhaps 15 to 19 percent of children and teens (nationally) had obesity," said Dr. Kori Flower, UNC-Chapel Hill Prof. of Pediatrics.
Dr. Flower said while it's still too early for data to reflect the toll the pandemic is having on obesity in children and teens, State of Childhood Obesity reports early evidence is beginning to show that COVID-19, along with the economic consequences of the pandemic, may be increasing the risk for obesity.
Flower said childhood obesity is generally defined as having a Body Mass Index greater than the 95th percentile for a child's age and sex.
"Probably what's more important than that, is the health habits that underlie the tendency to become overweight," said Dr. Flower.
With her patients, Flower said she addresses eating and physical activity habits and before the pandemic, many children were getting less than the one hour of recommended physical activity every day.
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Since the start of the pandemic, Flower said she's been most concerned with three things: children's access to care, children's education and their mental health.
When it comes to learning and mental health, she said it's all connected with maintaining good physical health, especially since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists obesity as an underlying risk factor for severe illness from COVID-19.
"One of the most important and immediate things that can be done is to continue to encourage children to stay active and move their bodies and eat as healthfully as possible under the circumstances," she said. "The increased screen time that may come with more learning online is a factor and also just children having to be at home with more restricted movement and activity."
Flower said families and communities need to prioritize finding creative ways to stay active, addressing food insecurity and supporting school nutrition programs, both now and eventually, on the other side of the pandemic.
"I'm very hopeful and I remain very optimistic that there's a lot that we can still do to help children and adults continue to adopt healthy behaviors, healthy eating and activity patterns that will help get us all out of the pandemic as safely as possible and also help us with our recovery from pandemic," Flower said.
Pediatricians urge healthy habits to fight childhood obesity during COVID-19 pandemic
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