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Childhood Obesity: Where Are We Now?


Last year, we discovered that 43 states lacked mandatory recess policies in their schools at a time when 1-in-5 school-aged children suffer from childhood obesity. In that post, we found that only seven states required, not just recommended, daily recess in their schools.

Since then, times have changed. According to an article dated March 2019 from, several more states now require some form of mandatory physical activity period. Eleven—Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia—now require at least 20 minutes a day of physical activity time in their schools. However, it’s important to note that “physical activity time” does not mean “recess,” and instead could be technically filled by gym class.

The state of childhood obesity, however, is not so bright. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) states that one-in-five children in the United States are obese, and it doesn’t look like that number is changing for the better anytime soon. A combination of factors, including genetics, high intake of sugary foods, neighborhood safety, and too little physical activity all contribute to the growing epidemic, which has been steadily increasing for the better part of four decades.

In a recent article, Huffington Post writer Elizabeth Millard poignantly stated that “Childhood obesity has been called an epidemic, but in some ways, that’s wishful thinking. Because with an epidemic, you can usually pinpoint a cause and potential solutions. Childhood obesity is more like fighting a hundred infections at once and trying every medication you’ve got, hoping something sticks.”

Aversion To Nutritional Change In Schools (We’re Not There Yet)

Childhood obesity can’t be tackled all at once, not when an estimated 13.7 million children in the United States alone are affected. There are too many bad habits that can’t be kicked cold turkey, like our addiction to sugary drinks and snacks, and change, if it comes, will not be for a long, long time.

What’s clear is that these issues have to be tackled one at a time, and gradually, and perhaps without much help from the federal government, since, according to Harvard’s Obesity Prevention Source, politics can get in the way.

“The Department of Agriculture recently finalized comprehensive new school meal guidelines that will increase vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and curb sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat,” the guide says. “But due to political pressures, the agency was not able to fully implement the meal guidelines recommended by an expert panel at the Institute of Medicine.”

Unfortunately, there’s a whole page dedicated to politics getting in the way of meaningful and comprehensive school lunch change, including pizza tomato paste being classified as a vegetable.

Yes, that’s correct. You didn’t read that wrong. Pizza tomato paste is currently classified as a vegetable, which means that when your kids are fed pizza at school, schools are counting that as the same as eating a salad.

Unfortunately, it seems that unless school districts take meaningful nutrition reform into their own hands, reducing childhood obesity might just be a pipe dream, at best, in the foreseeable future.

COVID-19 and Childhood Obesity

There are fears that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will increase the already high rate of obesity in children. According to a paper published in Obesity: A Research Journal, author Joseph Workman posits that by looking at changes in childhood obesity over summer vacation, you can determine how rates of childhood obesity will change during the pandemic.

"In a 2016 study of a nationally representative panel of kindergarten students," Workman writes, "my colleague and I found obesity increased from 8.9% to 11.5% from the fall of kindergarten to spring of second grade. Obesity increased during summer breaks by an average of 0.85 percentage points per month (95% CI: 0.58‐1.12) but decreased during each school year."

Workman continues, "Taking the average summer increase in obesity of 0.85 percentage points per month and extending this pattern over 5 months (0.85 × 5 = 4.25) would project that childhood obesity may be 4.25 percentage points (95% CI: 2.90‐5.60) higher after 5 months of COVID‐19 school closures than before the closures began."

Workman's paper mentions another paper, "COVID-19-Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children" by Andrew G. Rundle, Yoosun Park, Julie B. Herbtsman, Eliza W. Kinsey, and Y. Claire Wang, which, as you might surmise, discusses the same thing.

"The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) pandemic is causing substantial morbidity and mortality, straining health care systems, shutting down economies, and closing school districts," Rundle et al. writes. "While it is a priority to mitigate its immediate impact, we want to call attention to the pandemic’s longer‐term effect on children’s health; COVID‐19, via these school closures, may exacerbate the epidemic of childhood obesity and increase disparities in obesity risk."

Of particular note, Rundle et al. states "While much has been written regarding the poor food and physical activity environments in schools, the data show that children experience unhealthy weight gain not during the school year but rather primarily during the summer months when they are out of school." 

Both papers are great reads and hit on a key point: COVID-19 will probably make childhood obesity worse, not better.

How We're Helping In The Fight Against Childhood Obesity

Fit and Fun Playscapes offers a wide variety of playground stencils, recess games, and sensory pathway walks designed with any budget in mind, but we also offer two education resource pages. Our Sensory Pathways Resource Center is dedicated to all things sensory pathway/sensory walk-related, which we designed with the help of our friend Dr. Tim Davis, CAPE, and includes many juicy tidbits of information on how you can get your students up and moving throughout the school day. These movements, which are called "movement breaks" or "brain breaks," aren't just physically healthy; they're cognitively beneficial, as well.

Our Recess Resource Center, on the same hand, is full of information pertaining to how you can create the best recess environment for your kids, whether you have access to daily recess or not.

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