The data is in! Lockdown restrictions have created another pandemic that is disproportionately affecting our children.
Numerous research papers confirm that kids are moving less and spending more time on screens.
Activity levels down
Stringent lockdowns exacerbated existing issues around regular daily activity levels among children, who spend over three hours a day looking at screens, excluding time needed for schoolwork, according to the 2018 Healthy Active Kids South Africa report.
“Many schools no longer make physical education and extramural sports compulsory,” explains health and fitness expert, Lisa Raleigh.
“And all sporting and extramural activities abruptly ended in March 2020, which meant our kids became more inactive than ever.”
As a result, many young people failed to meet the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise during the 2020 academic year, according to figures from Sport England’s Active Lives survey. Other findings indicate that almost a third of all children in the UK (2.3 million) were classed as ‘inactive’ due to lockdown restrictions.
Experts worry that these short-term changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviour in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched.
A lack of sufficient activity and more sedentary time can lead to various health issues, including increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in children.
Already, one in eight children in South Africa is classified as obese, according to Professor Rina Swart from the University of the Western Cape.
“Kids aren’t burning off as many calories every day, yet they continue to consume the same amount or more. This is causing weight gain, which can affect their self-confidence,” elaborates Lisa.
Parents must also consider the knock-on effects related to more sedentary lifestyles among children, she cautions.
“Less activity and more screen time negatively affect sleep quality as kids don’t get as tired at night. As such, falling asleep and staying asleep become major issues.”
This lack of exercise and poor sleep can cause hormonal imbalances, which could eventually result in other health and developmental issues.
“Inadequate activity levels can result in bone loss and poor muscle development. Younger children also need regular activity to develop crucial neural pathways that affect their physical development, including coordination and proprioception,” explains Lisa.
And without an outlet to burn off adrenalin and expend energy, kids can become anxious. “This tends to manifest as an emotional issue for older kids and a physical issue for younger kids,” she adds.
Parents must take charge
While most people are struggling to find balance amid the pandemic, parents must make a concerted effort to get their kids active, believes Lisa.
“Unless you were an active family before the pandemic, you need to really make an effort to get everyone in the family active in some way on a daily basis. The responsibility now rests squarely on parents’ shoulders, not the school or aftercare.”
However, changing entrenched habits can prove challenging. Many parents will likely experience resistance to any suggestion that promotes more outdoor activity and less screen time.
“Parents must uncover the motivators that will get their kids moving every day. Understand your child and what motivates them to get moving. Perhaps it’s an incentive or reward. Others will respond to a goal-oriented approach, so sit down and set goals with and for your kids.”
When it comes to goal-setting, Lisa cautions against any weight-related focus. “Never make it about weight or your outward appearance because this approach tends to complicate the issue. Focus on health and the other benefits, like improved fitness, better emotions, and less stress and anxiety.”
In Lisa’s experience, when parents implement a holistic approach that aims to create a healthy and balanced individual from a physical and psychological perspective, parents tend to realise the best outcomes.
READ MORE | The Dreyer family 9 Peaks Challenge adventure
The fitness fix
It is ultimately up to parents to set the example and get the family active together. “Children look to us to set goals and get active. They won’t necessarily take the lead on physical activity,” states Lisa.
This can be as simple as a daily walk around the block or in the park to introduce a healthful habit into their daily routine.
“With more facilities now open, parents can also organise active playdates over weekends or during school holidays.”
Mix fun with fitness
Temptation bundling is another effective tool to get kids active.
“Combine something they enjoy, like music, with an activity they are less enthusiastic about, like exercise. Dancing to YouTube videos is a great way to combine music and movement. Caleb Marshall, known online as The Fitness Marshall, posts great dance workouts.”
Gamification is another powerful tool at our disposal. A wearable device that tracks steps and active minutes turns the daily activity into a game as the device rewards kids for reaching daily targets and goals.
“My Bella loves her Fitbit Ace 3. She is so focused on completing the circle to get the on-screen reward. We also celebrate the achievement and her desire to get active to reinforce the importance of regular physical activity for her health and development.”
Winter workout options
Rebounding is another engaging activity that blends fun with fitness. Developed by Lisa, rebounding entails bouncing on a mini trampoline, which kids can do at home and in the privacy of their bedroom, which is great for teenagers.
“Kids can perform workouts while watching TV, which is a great way to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting.”
Rebounding ticks all the boxes in terms of physical development – it helps kids cross the midline, works their cardiovascular system, and develops better balance, proprioception, coordination, and strength. The movements also enhance lymph drainage.
And any indoor home workout option is ideal during winter, especially as the threat of a potential third infection wave looms.
Lisa recommends getting kids active at least five times a week for 30 minutes or more. “And try to get their heart rates up to 80% or more of their maximum for the best benefits.”
Focus on food
And don’t neglect to focus on your child’s diet. Takeaways and convenience foods have become more pervasive during the lockdown as parents juggle homeschooling and work-from-home commitments, which leaves less time for healthy food prep.
“While parents are doing the best they can in the circumstances, 4 of their 5 meals a day must be as good as they can be,” stresses Lisa.
“Opt for good natural ingredients whenever possible and make an effort to cook at least one meal a day.”
In this regard, what you keep in your home matters. Eliminate refined sugars and processed foods as much as possible. Include predominantly whole, natural foods in your shopping list.
“Cook and prep on weekends and freeze for the week ahead if things get hectic or kids are home for the holiday. This will ensure you have the right quick-prep meals available for those busy days.”
Portion control matters, too, as does the cooking methods you employ. “Reducing 200 calories a day from your diet can stimulate weight loss. Grill, bake or air fry as often as possible to reduce a meal’s fat content,” recommends Lisa.
And don’t make it easy to snack on junk by keeping these foods in the pantry cupboard. “Kids can only eat what you provide in the house, so give them healthy alternatives.”
It is also important to use every opportunity to educate your children about the importance of proper nutrition.
“Teach them to respect their bodies and their health. For example, I share tips with my teenagers about how to make better food choices, like eating the bun or the fries with a burger, but never both. It’s an easy and uncomplicated way to manage their carb intake without creating neurosis around food.”
Lastly, aim to sit down for at least one meal a day. “Make it a time for the family to connect amid all the madness,” concludes Lisa.