Study: Kids spent 20% less time in physical activity amid COVID-19

Little girl watching Mickey Mouse on TV
Little girl watching Mickey Mouse on TV

Nenad Stojkovic / Flickr cc

Children worldwide engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for an estimated 17 minutes (20%) less a day during the COVID-19 pandemic—a rate that grew to 25% when the study period was longer—reveals an international systematic review and meta-analysis published yesterday in JAMA Pediatrics.

University College Dublin researchers led the analysis of 22 international longitudinal studies involving 14,216 children with child- or parent-reported data published from Jan 1, 2020, to Jan 1, 2022. Median participant age was 10.5 (range, 3 to 18) years, and 51% were boys.

Of the 46 independent samples included in the studies, 22 (48%) were from Europe, 8 (18%) from North America, 7 (15%) from South America, 5 (11%) from Asia, 1 each (2%) from the Middle East, Central America, and Australia/New Zealand (2%), and 1 sample reported data from multiple regions. Between-study heterogeneity was moderate to large.

Drop of nearly a third of recommended level

The duration of daily physical activity amid the pandemic was 20% less (90% confidence interval [CI], -34% to -4%) than prepandemic. The difference was larger for higher-intensity activity, at -32% (90% CI, -44% to -16%), for a 17-minute drop in daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

The 17-minute difference "represents a reduction of almost one-third of the daily dose of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended for young children (~3-5 years) and school-going children and adolescents (~5-18 years) to promote good physical health and psychosocial functioning," the researchers wrote.

An even larger difference (37%) was seen among participants living at higher latitudes (90% CI, -1% to 89%) and in studies with a longer interval between physical-activity evaluations (25%; 90% CI, -0.5% to 58%).

The difference seen in higher-latitude countries, where implementation of pandemic restrictions began during the transition to the unstructured summer months, could be due to the so-called "summer slide" in academic and physical-health behaviors.

"This suggests a substantial intensification during the pandemic of the usual summer slide into physical inactivity, which warrants particular attention from policy makers seeking to help children 'sit less and play more,' as targeted initiatives will be needed as children emerge into the summer months," the researchers wrote.

And the difference in longer-duration studies could reflect the compounding of the pandemic toll over time. "Most of the known multicomponent, family, social, and community support mechanisms of child and adolescent physical activity were unavailable during COVID-19," the authors wrote. "This undoubtedly created a 'perfect storm' for habit discontinuity in the context of child and adolescent physical activity."

Measures to promote more movement

The authors noted that public health mitigation measures implemented early in the pandemic, such as physical distancing, closures of gyms and playgrounds, cancellation of sports activities, school closures, and increased screen time also restricted children's ability to be physically active. And there is a risk that this decline, they said, could become the sedentary "new normal."

"Developmental scientists have begun to express concerns that sociohistorical events like the pandemic can be 'developmental turning points, setting into motion accumulating advantages or disadvantages that can deflect long-term trajectories of well-being,'" they said.

The researchers concluded that boosting children's physical activity should be a priority: "There is an urgent need for public health initiatives to revive young people's interest in, and support their demand for, physical activity during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Public health campaigns can have greater effect if they are child-centered, target a variety of physical activity modalities, and incorporate the family unit and wider community as co-constructors of lasting physical activity behavior change."

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