Childhood obesity: the impact of the pandemic

By Dan Worth on 31 March 2021

Childhood obesity is a major issue and lockdowns have only made the situation worse - so what can schools do about it?

“When they returned it was about half an hour before we all started nudging each other and commenting that they had not only grown up, but out.”

The words of this headteacher, speaking anonymously, will perhaps resonate with others across the country who noticed an increase in overweight children returning to the classroom from 8 March. 

In response, the head used an early assembly to remind children of the importance of being active and made sure outdoor time was given priority – something that underlined the scale of the issue.

“I've asked my teachers to take them out for more playground time. My PE coach said that the Reception class were exhausted 15 minutes in, which is completely out of character,” the headteacher says.

Jack Wildsmith, a PE teacher at an independent junior school in Leicestershire, says that he has also seen a diminished enthusiasm for exercise and sports.

“I have certainly seen a huge difference in children's approach to exercise since schools returned," he says. "Unfortunately, some have come back overweight but more have returned with a reduced engagement in physical activity.”

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And even for pupils who are keen to exercise, the lack of activity over lockdown has led to reduced fitness for many.

“They are super-excited about being outside at breaktimes and are spending the time as they usually do: playing football, gymnastics, dance routines and general running around [but] the lack of stamina is very evident,” one anonymous teacher says.

“After lunch and mid-way through the afternoon, they start to drift, concentration is less and the amount of work they are getting done dips.”

Sharon White, the head of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (Saphna), tells a similar tale: “In terms of childhood obesity, school nursing services are reporting similar [issues], though many are still only just beginning to set eyes on [pupils] and reinstate the NCMP [National Child Measurement Programme]."

Covid: The impact on child health and obesity

All this may be surprising to hear: weren’t young people doing Joe Wicks' workouts every morning?

Lots probably were but for a larger proportion, it seems as if the reality of lockdown was a lack of structured time to get outside and exercise. 

A survey by Tes in July last year found that many teachers were worried about children's physical health just three months into the pandemic, while a survey of parents in February by the Youth Sport Trust found a big decline in the amount of exercise that their children were doing.

Some 70 per cent said their children were less physically active than a year ago, while four-fifths said their children were doing less than the recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day.

Worrying rises in child obesity

Data from the NCMP (which measures the weight of Reception and Year 6 pupils each year) shows how this has manifested.

The most recent data, published in October 2020 covering the 2019-2020 school year, found a small but clear rise in pupils classed as "obese and severely obese".

  • Reception: A rise of 0.2 percentage points from 9.7 per cent in 2018-19 to 9.9 per cent in 2019-20.
  • Year 6: A rise of 0.8 percentage points from 20.2 per cent in 2018-19 to 21 per cent in 2019-20.

It’s worth noting that both the figures of 9.9 per cent and 21 per cent are the highest since the NCMP began in 2006-07, and the increase of 0.8 per cent for Year 6 pupils is the largest recorded to date.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Lockdowns, particularly the most recent one over winter, will have massively curbed the opportunities for young people to get out and play, take part in sport and generally keep fit and active.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has posed challenges for families, including the closure of schools, leisure centres and sports clubs, which has contributed towards a decrease in physical activity for some children,” says Ms White.

And for some pupils, the full reopening of schools and the chance to get back out exercising will no doubt undo the damage of the past 12 months.

The poorest communities worst affected 

However, what is particularly worrying is the way in which the issue is hitting those in the poorest communities hardest.

The NCMP website notes that “children living in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas”. It reports:

  • 13.3 per cent of Reception children living in the most deprived areas were obese compared with 6 per cent of those living in the least deprived areas.
  • 27.5 per cent of Year 6 children living in the most deprived areas were obese compared with 11.9 per cent of those living in the least deprived areas.

Chris Wright, head of health and wellbeing at Youth Sport Trust, told Tes that this is of concern.

“It’s clear that the inequality gap has widened, so children in lockdown that have not had access to outdoor space, to good food, and no support to be active…it’s had a detrimental effect on their ability to maintain a healthy weight,” he said.

He notes that this issue extends not just to obese and overweight children but those that are also classed as underweight and malnourished.

“We saw from the work that [footballer and campaigner] Marcus Rashford did that there are children in families where parents are trying to make ends meet and have not got the ability to provide the nutritional meals they would like.”

As such, he says it is vital that the lack of opportunities for outdoor exercise and poor diet among young children is given due focus, not just as part of a short-term summer catch-up but as an embedded part of school life.

“We need to re-establish the value of PE and sport...the enrichment opportunities that sport brings that can help children and schools provide a balanced recovery,” Wright adds.

This is clearly something parents want to see, too. The Youth Sport Trust survey also found that 78 per cent of parents wanted schools to provide at least two hours per week of physical education to every pupil.

Why it matters so much

For teachers under intense pressure to help pupils "catch up" on lost learning, this may sound like just one more thing to add to the to-do list.

But the importance of good physical health and academic attainment is well-established.

 A report by the World Health Organisation in 2014 said that "there is reason to believe health does have an impact on education”.

Similarly, a report from September 2019 from the UK’s chief medical officers stated: “In children and young people, regular physical activity is associated with improved learning and attainment [and] better mental health”.

The importance of PE

So how can this be done? For Mr Wildsmith, the answer is to make PE fun and about socialising, rather just a means of getting fit.

“We are developing our PE curriculum to look at how we can use fun and high-energy games to engage children in lessons, as opposed to fitness-based structures,” he says.

“[With] spring around the corner, we are focusing on two things in PE lessons: rekindling that enjoyment of PE and exercise and increasing social interactions between students, all through the use of fun games.” 

Pat Hallahan, head of boys' PE at St Martin's School in Brentwood, Essex, says that one easy way to do this is to use PE lessons to give students a chance to be creative with how they engage with exercise, especially for those who may have returned less active than a year ago.

“We trialled starting off all practical PE lessons with a 10-minute run or walk, and allowing students to listen to music or podcasts. This was really popular and students gave feedback saying they enjoyed the activity much more,” he says.

“Setting up challenges has been really successful. Set a number of kilometres that need to be walked or run, and challenge students to individually or as a group to meet that goal.

To help those who are particularly in need, the Holiday Activities and Food Programme 2021 (run by the Department for Education) makes funding available to local authorities, linked to the number of pupils on free school meals.

“This can allow schools to work with local authorities to identify children that would benefit from these projects,” Mr Wright says, noting that it offers the chance to take part in fitness events and activities during holidays and receive good, nutritional meals. 

Meanwhile, Ms White points out that an online guide on childhood obesity, developed by Health Education England e-Learning for Healthcare (HEE e-LfH) and Public Health England (PHE) as part of the All Our Health e-learning programme, is available online and worth researching.

“The [resource] provides advice and guidance for health and care professionals to help support families and children living above a healthy weight,” she says.

The hope will be that with a return to normality and an awareness among healthcare professionals and educators that lockdown has increased the issue of obesity in young children, efforts can now be made to tackle this.

No doubt those across healthcare and education will be watching to see what the next NCMP data shows about the weight of the next cohort of Reception and Year 6 children to make sure that as children grow up, they don’t grow out.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes