COVID-19 could have long-term impacts on children’s sleep and physical activity
According to University of Wollongong academic Senior Professor Anthony Okely, the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting social isolation could have a detrimental impact on the long-term physical and mental wellbeing of children.
Professor Okely co-authored a Comment piece, which appeared in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health last week, providing expert insight into the impact the crisis was having on the health of children around the world, and how that could escalate if physical activity was not made a priority in a post-lockdown landscape.
Having developed the Australian 24-hour movement behaviour guidelines for children, Professor Okely is well positioned to comment on how the pandemic may impact children’s development.
Although research into how the pandemic has affected children’s daily movement, sedentary screen time, and sleep was so far limited, evidence already demonstrated that these three tenets of wellbeing had been compromised, he said.
Children are typically more active in education and care settings, such as school, taking part in sport, organised activities, and moving about during break periods, than when they are at home.
“To date, we have little evidence to know if, as a result of home confinement, children are spending less time active, going to bed later, and sleeping in later because they do not have to travel to school, or spending more time sedentary, especially through recreational screen time,” the Comment in The Lancet read.
Evidence shows that in typical times, children are less active and more sedentary, with less consistent sleep patterns, on unstructured or non-school days (i.e., when they are not physically at school) than on school days.
Data from the 15 countries represented by the co-authors showed that children were accessing public parks, playgrounds, and sporting fields less frequently during isolation, as these places had, in many countries, been declared off limits.
The reduction in physical movement and the rise in sedentary behaviour was described by the researchers as alarming, but they were most concerned about how this impact would continue long term, if physical activity was not made a priority for children.
Long-term effects could include lower levels of vitamin D, the onset of myopia, and poor mental health.
Professor Okely said he was worried that this would become “the new normal”, particularly among those who live in apartments and may not have access to their own backyard.
In response to their concerns, the authors have created a set of recommendations for governments and parents to ensure that children’s health remains a priority, both in lockdown and beyond.
These recommendations include:
- encouraging health educators and teachers to promote movement in daily online lessons;
- for health providers to reinforce the positive impact of activity during consultations with children; and,
- for the media to regularly include messages encouraging kids to move more and sit less.
The comment piece in The Lancet featured academics from 15 countries including China, Chile, Australia, South Africa, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Russia and Sweden.
Access to the paper is available here.