By Ken Reed

We’re in the midst of both a coronavirus pandemic and a childhood obesity epidemic. As such, there’s a dilemma for young athletes and their parents: Is the risk of playing organized sports during the Covid pandemic greater than the risk of the negative physical and mental impacts of not playing?

Young people need to move their bodies for both physical and mental health reasons. However, Covid-19 makes parents and some kids wonder if it’s safe to play organized team sports. According to the Aspen Institute, 50% of parents fear kids will get sick returning to sports. And this isn’t just an issue about kids. Is conducting youth and high school sports safe for the adult coaches, officials, organizers and administrators who make youth and high school sports possible? And while children and teenagers playing sports might not be at a high level of risk themselves, what about the parents and grandparents they go home to and interact with after practices, games and other team functions?

Here’s the challenge: When it comes to the wellbeing of our young people, we can’t just focus on Covid. We also have to consider the negative impact of physical inactivity on our youth. And also the negative impact of young people being socially isolated from their peers.

Since the 1980s, the obesity rate has doubled among children between two and 11 and quadrupled in teens 12 to 19. Those are pre-Covid stats. Things have gotten worse since the coronavirus hit our shores. There has been nearly a 50% drop in physical activity among U.S. children from the start of the pandemic, according to a survey done in September by The Aspen Institute. That spike in physical inactivity will undoubtedly have negative health implications.

In addition, many kids are struggling mentally and emotionally without sports. A survey of high school athletes conducted by the University of Wisconsin in July found 68% were experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that typically require medical intervention. That figure is nearly 37% higher than pre-Covid surveys.

“The results are both striking and concerning,” said Dr. Claudia Reardon, associate professor of psychiatry at Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

In an era of childhood obesity — in which kids are spending more time staring at screens than ever — we need our young people to be more active, not less. What’s particularly concerning is that young people are finding things other than sports to spend their time on during the Covid shutdown. Their interest in playing sports has dropped. Nearly three out of 10 children who played a sport before the pandemic are no longer interested in participating, according to the Aspen Institute study. Along the same lines, only 53% of parents expect their children to resume their sports participation at the same or higher rate as before Covid restrictions set in.

One thing is for sure, the challenge of getting kids active in sports won’t end after the Covid pandemic ends. The epidemics of obesity and physical inactivity among our young people will remain. Once public health authorities believe it’s safe for all of us to resume normal activities, there will still be a strong need for a well-conceived and well-coordinated marketing and communications campaign targeted at young people and their parents designed to increase sports participation and get kids moving again.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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