By Ken Reed

There have been a lot of stories about how Covid-19, and the move to home-schooling it caused, has resulted in our kids falling behind academically. Indeed, that’s a real problem.

However, an equally important negative impact of Covid on our youth is the physical inactivity epidemic it has fed.

For years, our children have become less and less active. Even before Covid, fewer than 20 percent of children and adolescents, 6 to 19, met the recommended 60 or more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity at least five times a week, according to the CDC.

The CDC has also reported that only 7% of children ages 6-11 and 5% of those ages 12-19 were obese in 1980. But by 2014, those numbers had increased to 17.5% and 20.5% respectively. That trend only worsened during the Covid pandemic.

There have been many reasons cited for this inactivity: The proliferation of video games and social media, cutbacks in physical education and recess time, smaller or no backyards in newer housing developments, parents driving their kids to school instead of having them walk or ride a bike, a drop in organized sports participation, etc. The list of causes is a long one, with Covid being the most prominent the last couple years.

When Covid-19 hit, kids and their parents were told to stay home, youth sports shut down, video game and social media use went up among children and adolescents, and most schools went to remote learning. The result? The physical activity levels of young people dropped to all-time lows. A Nationwide Children’s Hospital study found only 5% of children were meeting the 60-minute daily exercise goal.

The benefits of physical activity for our young people are numerous. The Aspen Institute reported in October 2021 that active kids are one-tenth as likely to be obese, have up to 40% higher academic test scores, are less likely to smoke or use illegal drugs, are more likely to go to college, have less depression, go on to earn 7-8% more annually, have less illness during their lifetime and have one-third the rate of disability.

If exercise were a pill, it would be called a miracle drug.

In 2014, University of Illinois researcher Dr. Chuck Hillman used an MRI to study the brains of 9-and-10-year-olds while they took a test. One group had exercised for 20 minutes prior to the test, while the other group sat quietly. The exercisers’ brains displayed far more brain activity and those kids scored higher on the test.

He led a similar study in 2009, employing an EEG instead of an MRI. The results were the same. In 2012, Hillman and his colleagues published a longitudinal study that found aerobic fitness predicted cognitive performance a year later.

Given Hillman’s research, perhaps the best way for children and adolescents to catch up academically post-Covid is to boost their exercise levels.

Here’s the reality of the situation: Our children are on pace to be significantly more overweight and obese than their parents by the time they reach adulthood. That could lead to higher rates of what some researchers are calling Sedentary Death Syndrome (SDS).

The pandemic has ramped up the urgency to get our kids moving. Schools need to increase hours spent in physical education and on recess. Parents need to encourage their kids to put down their phones and video games and go outside and play. Increased youth sports participation and other forms of physical activity are also part of the solution. Bicycle use by children continues to trend down. That needs to be reversed.

Covid-19 has made our children and adolescents heavier and less active. As a society, we are called to get creative in finding new ways to increase their activity levels.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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