When school lets out, all bets are off. It’s a carefree time of year made for letting loose — sometimes too loose.
“Irregular sleep, meals and activity schedules, plus more screen time, can all combine to create the perfect environment for kids to gain excessive weight,” says Jessica Hemingway, MS, RD, a registered dietitian with Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Lifestyle Medicine Program. “We see it every year.”
A different kind of summer
This year, the coronavirus pandemic poses additional challenges – stress and anxiety due to changes kids have never experienced before and fewer options to stay active. Kids spent the last few months of the school year homeschooling instead of attending school, which means their structure and routine drastically changed. The break from the normal routine of school may be five to six months for many kids, instead of the usual three. Many are not participating in sports or spending time with friends like they normally do.
All these touchpoints that kids normally have in their daily life are core to helping them maintain healthy habits that lead to a healthy weight, according to Matt Haemer, MD. They also help kids cope with stressors they encounter every day. Some kids who already have mental health issues are now having increased trouble.
About one in every four kids in Colorado is classified as overweight or obese. While summer weight gain can happen to any kid, those who already have overweight or obesity are more susceptible to it and at higher risk of health problems resulting from it. The altered environment kids find themselves in during the pandemic may increase the risk of weight gain even further for some kids.
Fortunately, says Hemingway, there are lots of ways to keep kids active and healthy.
Tips for preventing summer weight gain in children
1. Keep meal and snack times consistent
When consistent meal schedules go out the window, kids tend to “graze” all day — often on junk food — taking in significantly more calories than they would from meals. As much as possible, set meal and snack times and permit kids to eat only during those times.
Many parents are working from home during the pandemic and may find it challenging to monitor their kids’ eating habits. So, it may be helpful to set up visible cues for younger kids or kids with intellectual or developmental disabilities like turning the lights on in the kitchen when it’s time to eat and keeping it off when the kitchen is off limits. Another idea is put up a green sign for snack and mealtimes and a red sign for time when the kitchen is closed. For older kids, explain that there are rules for mealtimes, and they need to follow them. Praise them when they follow the rules.
2. Keep healthy foods on hand
Kids often hit the junk food when parents are unable to closely supervise. So, plan ahead. Instead of keeping chips, cookies, sugary drinks and other high-calorie, low-nutrition foods in the house, stock healthy alternatives like low-sugar yogurt, low-fat cheese, hummus, fruits and vegetables.
Plan meals and snacks for the week ahead of time. This will help you stick to the planned foods when you go grocery shopping.
3. Limit screen time
When kids are sitting in front of a screen, they aren’t active, so try to limit their screen time. Eating while watching screens also tends to increase the amount of food they eat – especially unhealthy foods. When focusing on the screen and not the food, kids don’t pay attention to what or how much they’re eating.
Many devices come with parental controls to block or limit kids’ access, and if parents can’t be there to supervise, they can always disable or take the devices with them. Want to explore what screen time limits might work for your family? The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a helpful family media plan tool.
4. Offer creative, regular physical activity
Set expectations for how much physical activity you want your child to get each day and give them ideas on what types of activities count. These activities can include chores, taking a walk or playing a vigorous sport like soccer with family in the backyard or a park. Exercising early in the day can help burn a few more calories during the day and help kids stay focused later on. Getting outside is one of the best predictors for being active.
Chores like sweeping, vacuuming, laundry, dishes, changing sheets and general cleaning offer kids a great way not only to learn how to contribute to the family, but to burn energy while they’re at it.
5. Make sure they get enough sleep
Kids tend to go to bed later during the summer. That can lead to less sleep, and when they don’t get enough, it can affect their hormone balance, energy level, mood and even their appetite. Set bedtimes and wake times close to what they are during the school year — and stick to them.
6. Model healthy habits for your kids
It helps for you to maintain a sleep and meal schedule, eat healthful foods, do physical activities with your kids, avoid screens while eating and model other healthy habits you want your kids to have. Your kids are more likely to adopt healthy habits if they see you doing it too. Modeling healthy habits may be the most effective way to mold the behavior of young kids.
7. Help kids deal with coronavirus stress
According to psychologist Richard Boles, PhD, many kids may be experiencing increased stress and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Indicators of anxiety in kids include irritability and expressions of worry or fear.
When your child seems stressed, encourage them to take control of their physical body through breathing exercises or search for apps that teach kids how to do deep breathing. To help control anxiety, kids can learn to take control of their fearful thoughts by noticing whether they are helpful and if there is strong evidence to support them. Many times, there isn’t any evidence.
Encourage them to find a place to cool down, if needed. It can be helpful for older kids to talk to someone they trust or write in a journal. The key is to help kids gain control of the tension and anxiety they’re feeling. If the stress and anxiety persist, it may be helpful to get additional support from a mental health professional.
Learn how to check in on your teen.
By helping your children develop coping mechanisms during the pandemic, you’ll not only help them prevent summer weight gain but keep them healthy in body and in mind.