Back to school: Getting kids back into classrooms can help prevent obesity

ORLANDO, Fla. — As fall arrives and parents are ramping up to send their children back to school, a new study reveals returning to the daily classroom routine can also help kids avoid becoming overweight. Researchers from the University of Central Florida find, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and remote learning, having a structured schedule and reopening schools leads to more activity for students and less sedentary behavior.

In a study of 50 students from rural schools, the team discovered that behaviors which often lead to obesity — such as inactivity and too much screen time — drops on school days. At the same time, a child’s general level of activity rises on school days — leading to better overall health.

According to the CDC, more than 20 percent of American children between six and 11 years-old are obese. Excess weight can lead to several health complications later on, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and even cancer.

UCF researcher Keith Brazendale focused the study on rural students, noting that they’re at a higher risk of obesity than children in urban areas. Brazendale adds that there’s also less data on the behaviors which lead to obesity among children in comparison to adults. Those habits include little to no physical activity, having a poor diet, poor sleep habits, and spending too much time in front of digital screens.

Back to school schedules keep kids on the move

Study authors used wristband accelerometers to study the amount of physical activity and sleep students get on school and non-school days. The participants’ parents also kept a diary of their child’s daily diet and screen time during the two-week experiment.

Researchers discovered that young students average an extra 16 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on school days in comparison to non-school days. Additionally, each student’s sedentary time dropped by about one hour and screen time dropped by an hour and a half during school days.

In another experiment with rural school students, the team found that children suffered from accelerated weight gain during five months of home quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This supports the benefit of attending schools and programs,” Brazendale says in a university release.

The study author adds that kids need some sort of structure in their days, even when they’re not in a classroom or schools are closed for health reasons.

“It’s not necessarily the program itself that always provides the direct benefit, but the presence of ‘attending something’ seems to shape behaviors outside of the program’s operating hours and almost sets a default schedule for the day for the child, like when they wake up or go to bed, or when they eat,” Brazendale explains.

Rain or shine, kids need to stay active

Even in rainy and inclement weather, study authors urge parents and educators to find a way to keep children active while indoors. This includes having a plan of activities children can do without having to go outside, while still keeping them moving and away from screens.

“This means maybe having a very loose schedule that has time for children’s snack, free play time, maybe some indoor exercises that don’t require a lot of space such as aerobics, dancing to music, or even yoga,” Brazendale says. “I also encourage rule-setting around screen and media time, especially in the evening as bedtime approaches, as this can be beneficial for the child.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children between six and 17 get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day.

The findings appear in the journal Childhood Obesity.