NewsLocal News


Local pediatricians worry about rise in childhood obesity, anxiety during pandemic

Posted at 10:09 AM, Nov 23, 2020

Central Coast pediatricians are seeing a troubling trend in children as the pandemic wears on; kids are gaining weight at alarming rates.

Doctors say adopting healthy habits now could make a big difference, mentally and physically, in the New Year.

For eight-year-old Liam Borja and his four-year-old brother Noah, a bike ride around their Morro Bay neighborhood is an important part of their day.

Whether Liam's third-grade classes are in-person or at home, his favorite part of school is - "Recess, and it's still recess," Liam said.

However, pediatricians are finding that kids are not playing, exercising or having healthy eating habits during quarantine.

Dr. Rene Bravo has been taking care of kids on the Central Coast for 35 years but the COVID-19 pandemic is causing concerning side-effects for his patients at rates he hasn't seen before.

"We're forcing [children] to be in their rooms for hours in front of these screens," Dr. Bravo said. "Many of them are eating more, they are gaining weight. I am definitely seeing that. And the amounts of anxiety, stress, depression are increasing exponentially right now."

A July study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science projects childhood obesity in America may increase by 2.4 percent if school closures continue through the end of the year.

Dr. Bravo is concerned about the consequences of kids spending so much time sitting in front of a screen.

"We're starting to see a point now where the risk of [COVID-19], which is age-adjusted, is not as high as the risk of being sedentary, the risk of obesity and the risk of mental health crises," Dr. Bravo said.

In addition to being less active, Dr. Bravo says children are not making good choices when it comes to food.

"Kids who are frustrated tend to comfort eat," he said.

Dr. Julie Anselmo of Central Coast Pediatrics agrees and emphasizes the importance of establishing a schedule.

"[Parents] should schedule family meals and snacks and get rid of the constant grazing that kids are doing out of boredom, depression, nervousness or whatever is causing the grazing and constant snacking," Dr. Anselmo told KSBY.

She also advises families to plan out healthy snacks and get rid of sugary junk food in the house.

Teddy Borja, dad to Liam and Noah, says he notices the boys snacking more now that they are home all the time.

"They're always running to the snack drawer or cabinet and we have to watch it at times," Borja said.

Doctors Bravo and Anselmo say in addition to scheduling meal times, kids need a consistent sleep schedule to avoid weight gain and other health problems.

"Many kids are now going to bed really late and getting up really late. It's messing up with their sleep-wake cycles," said Dr. Bravo.

Every one to two hours, Dr. Bravo says students should take a break from the screen to rest their eyes and refocus.

In the Borja household, breaks are important to Liam's success in school.

"Oftentimes, I'll see him kind of bouncing around in his chair and I'll look at the clock and go, 'Okay when is your break?' because I know he needs to get some energy out," Borja said.

Pre-pandemic, the Borjas got a small trampoline that now resides in their living room.

"The trampoline has actually been amazing when it comes to getting little, short bursts of energy out for [Liam]," said Borja.

Dr. Anselmo encourages families to schedule 60 minutes of exercise into their day but says it doesn't need to be all at once.

"Have exercise breaks instead of snack breaks," Dr. Anselmo said. "Get old school stuff like jump ropes or hula hoops and do 10 minutes at a time between Zoom classes."

Brittney Nicholson runs a children's fitness program called CaliKids Fitness and says any bit of movement can help a child reset during online learning.

"Just getting up and taking that big, giant stretch or running across the room, it can change your brain in a second," Nicholson said.

Bravo and Anselmo recommend parents look for ways to supplement your child's physical education class.

CaliKids Fitness offers weekly workouts in the park in Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande.

"They are outdoor, socially distanced and safe," Nicholson said.

Or, look for virtual options like dance classes on YouTube or Zoom workouts like the ones CaliKids offers.

"We're going strong on Zoom," Nicholson said. "We have Tumble & Dance on Zoom and we have Ninja Skills on Zoom."

Whether it's a trip to the beach, bouncing on a trampoline or biking around the block, pediatricians agree kids and teens need to move their bodies for ideally an hour a day.

"It doesn't have to be Olympic-level training but by goodness, get that blood pressure up. Sweat," Dr. Bravo said. "That really helps alleviate a lot of the physical stress and anxiety."

Doctors and fitness experts also say it is important to talk about exercise positively and present it to kids as play instead of punishment for being unhealthy.