Getting kids active after COVID-19 will be a 'substantial challenge,' says public health researcher

With parents busy working and young people learning online, activity levels for children dropped dramatically during the pandemic, say Canadian experts, who warn it will take more than just returning to in-person classes to get them back to pre-COVID-19 levels. 

Parents, coach discuss how children's activity levels have changed since the pandemic

Malam Mbarak, founder and owner of the Umoja Soccer School in Toronto, has found the fitness level of his young players dropped dramatically after months at home. Research indicates it'll be difficult to get young people moving again at pre-pandemic levels. (Kevin Jones)

After a year and a half under COVID-19, when parents were busy working and students were largely learning online, activity levels for young people dropped dramatically, say Canadian experts, who now warn it will take more than just a return to classes to get them moving again. 

A survey from the research unit at Ottawa's children's hospital CHEO found children's movement declined abruptly at the beginning of the pandemic — only 2.6 per cent of children and youth met the 24-hour movement guidelines from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

"We saw this massive decline, abruptly, perhaps expectedly, because the messaging, you might recall at the time, was stay home," said Mark Tremblay, the Ottawa-based senior scientist who conducted the CHEO research. He repeated the survey six months later and found the number of kids meeting the guidelines had risen to 3.1 per cent, nowhere near pre-pandemic levels of between 12 and 17 per cent.

Tremblay said getting kids moving again will be a "substantial challenge".

"A year ago I would have said I think we can get back there because it's only been three or four months since this started. It's now been a year and a half," he said. "The longer one establishes a new pattern of behaviour, the harder it is to break it."

Malam Mbarak, founder and owner of the Umoja Soccer School in Toronto, has seen this as well. He found the fitness level of his young players dropped dramatically after months at home.

"Usually, in my program we have strength and conditioning for 15 minutes, and in the first few weeks the kids were struggling to even do some jumps, to run maybe like two or three laps".

They couldn't even enjoy games at first because "their fitness level was very, very low" 

He believes that's because children don't usually exercise for exercise's sake — they only move a lot when they are playing with friends or doing an organized activity. 

"They aren't motivated to go out [and] go for a run like an adult," he said.

Mbarak kept his own kids, two school-aged boys, active playing soccer, catch, or Frisbee in the park, but it wasn't easy.

"We tried our best as parents to balance between being active and also to realize that it's hard on them too."

Karen Mcclellan says the mental health of her seven-year-old son suffered during the pandemic, but improved once he started exercising again. (Martin Brown)

Too much screen time

Tremblay and other experts recommend that children have a maximum of two hours of recreational screen time per day. He said parents who believe this is doable will more likely be able to enforce it.

"A parent's belief in their ability to limit their kid's screen time was the single most important factor associated with kids meeting the 24-hour guidelines. So some parents believed they could do that and had a family structure and rules in place, or their parenting style or whatever. Some didn't. Those that did, had a much greater likelihood of their kids meeting healthy living guidelines than those that didn't."

For working parents with children learning online, screens were unavoidable. 

Karen Mcclellan, the mother of a seven-year-old boy, said "during the pandemic and lockdown when they are on their screens all day learning — and then one of the biggest ways for them to socialize with their friends is to stay on the screen and play Roblox or some other video game so that they can interact with their friends — it is just a lot of screen time."

She found her son's mental health really suffered, but once he got moving again, his mood improved.

"The only reason why I feel comfortable talking about this is we noticed a giant change once he was back in summer camps with his peers. Now, is this because he is physically active? I can't tell you, because it's a combination of he's physically active, he's with his peer group every day, he is back to being bouncy, happy, a joy filled boy — the boy that I have always known but went missing for awhile."

Larisa Trabulsi has four children, all involved in sports. One of her daughters is 13, an age at which experts say girls can be prone to dropping out of sports.

"If you had told me before March 2020, that my basketball-crazy daughter would stop for 18 months and not play the game, I wouldn't have believed you but it took a pandemic for her to stop doing the sport she loved," the Toronto working mom said.

Trabulsi is confident her daughter will pick up basketball again this fall, but the statistics for girls aren't good.

Larisa Trabulsi says she's confident her daughter Fallon, shown dribbling the basketball, will get back to playing the sport in the fall. (Submitted by Jen Ellis)

Girls at risk of quitting sports

Ann Pegoraro, co-director of the National Network for Research on Gender Equity in Canadian Sport, studied the effect of the pandemic on girls' activity.

"We already knew that sport participation was a problem for young girls. They dropped out at higher rates [than boys]. But what we're seeing in that data that we have is that an additional one in four are not committed to coming back post the pandemic," said Pegoraro, who's based in Guelph, Ont. That's about 350,000 girls. 

All the reasons they might have quit before have been amplified during the pandemic.  

"They've gained weight or they've gotten out of shape…. They're not comfortable with what they have to wear or they aren't comfortable with themselves," she said.

"All organizations involved in physical activity need to think about ways they can make it friendly and accessible." 

More unstructured play

Tremblay sees a shift away from organized sports as positive, one that has restored balance in people's lives. 

Not every family can afford activities like hockey or fit it into their schedules, so he doesn't want parents to feel pressure to return to a heavy rotation of organized sports, which he calls "wonderful" but not "necessary" for fitness. 

He's also seen some evidence of an increase in unstructured play and encourages parents to continue to give kids free time, "not for increased recreational screen-time, but time outdoors, in their neighbourhood, playing ball hockey, throwing a Frisbee around, playing hide and seek, doing the things that were done in the past."

Meanwhile, many parents hope schools stay open and there will be places for kids to play once winter comes.

Mbarak hopes along with pools and skating rinks, a sports "bubble" or dome can be erected in a nearby park so his players can continue to practise even once it gets colder, and maintain the fitness level they've just started to build back.  

"That is my biggest worry," he said.


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