The past year has been challenging for the kids. From online learning to physical distancing and everything in between, most girls and boys have a hard time keeping up with their homework, maintaining social relationships and accumulating the recommended minimum of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day. In fact, the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) has affected the lives of young people in an unprecedented way and concerns about physical and mental health are growing.
A pandemic within a pandemic
Not so long ago, exercise epidemiologists used the word pandemic to describe alarming trends in physical inactivity around the world (Cole et al., 2012). Now, we have a pandemic of physical inactivity within the COVID-19 pandemic and both conditions will only get worse unless steps are taken to help prevent its spread (Wilke et al., 2021).
Even before COVID-19, the vast majority of young people did not have at least 60 minutes of MVPA per day, and the situation is even worse today. Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a decrease in physical activity and an increase in leisure time in front of screens among girls and boys (Moore et al., 2020). Furthermore, performance losses in cardiorespiratory fitness (eg, progressive cardiovascular running) and muscular fitness (eg, push-ups and sit-ups) are now reported in school-aged youth (Jurak et al., 2021; Wahl-Alexander & Camic, 2021).
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time children spend in parks and beaches has decreased and children’s opportunities to get active at school and in fitness centers have significantly decreased. Given the strong associations between MVPA and health outcomes, young people’s physical and mental health may be compromised by decreased healthy movement behaviors throughout the day (Figure 1). Long periods of physical inactivity can lead to muscle weakness, poor motor skills, and an inevitable deterioration in a child’s confidence and aptitude to engage in unnecessary physical activity with energy, vitality, and attention.
In contrast, young adults may spend more time engaging in sedentary behaviors because movement becomes more difficult (and sometimes embarrassing) when BMI reaches unhealthy levels. At the same time, mental health problems may begin to arise due to limited social interactions and increased stress during periods of confinement at home. Poor mental health resilience, attributable in part to decreases in meaningful social interactions during exercise and challenging sports activities, may increase the risk of mental health problems because young people may be less able to cope with life-changing circumstances.
Physical activity is the multi-pill
Polypill is a medication that combines several active ingredients and can be used to treat a variety of conditions. MVPA may be considered a multi-pill because of the many physical and mental health benefits that can result from active transportation, outdoor play, physical education, planned exercise, and athletic activities. Gradually returning to a more active lifestyle in school and in the community can be a treat for young people who may have spent more time in front of a screen over the past year than in the playground, fitness center or sports field. While parents continue to face many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, returning to a more active lifestyle can benefit the entire family.
However, a return to a more physically active lifestyle should not begin with competitive sports. An unexpected one-year hiatus resulted in a worrying decline in fitness, and thus, most participants may not be prepared for the demands of exercise and competition (Mulcahey et al., 2021). Prior to COVID-19, pediatric researchers raised concerns about low levels of muscle strength in modern-day youth (Faigenbaum et al, 2020), and now there is a real risk of compounding the effect of physical inactivity with the escalation of sport-related injuries in young athletes. According to Nicholas de Nobile, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and senior medical advisor at ACE, “There may be rashes from ACL injuries and many other sports injuries, both traumatic and overuse, in young athletes. This fall unless preparatory strength and conditioning becomes the new normal.”
Because a certain amount of muscle strength is needed to jump, run, kick and throw proficiently, young people with insufficient levels of muscle strength may be less likely to participate in exercise and sports activities, and if they do participate, they are more likely to suffer an activity-related injury. Supervised and well-designed interventions targeting strength deficits have been shown to be effective in reducing youth sports injuries (Petushek et al., 2019).
This type of fitness program, which includes resistance training in addition to agility and jumping training, is urgently needed to prepare today’s youth to participate in sports. As efforts to integrate MVPA back into young lives begin to take shape, exercise professionals have an extraordinary opportunity to build an infrastructure that recognizes the fundamental importance of muscular fitness early in life.
Interested in learning more about youth fitness? Become a youth fitness specialist at ACE and you will be well positioned to positively impact children’s health and well-being.
10 Tips for Young Fitness Professionals
- Incorporate strength and strength building activities into fitness programs
- Encourage outdoor play in parks and playgrounds
- Celebrate your efforts to be active all day long
- Promote social interactions and encourage young people to help each other
- Keep the fun in youth fitness
- Focus on developing positive lifestyle behaviors, including adequate sleep
- Be a good role model and set an example of expected actions and behaviors
- Encourage parents and caregivers to incorporate physical activity into the daily routine
- Support daily physical education from K-12
- Work with sports medicine professionals to enhance the benefits of neuromuscular training
Feigenbaum, A, et al. (2020). Make a strong case for prioritizing muscular fitness in youth physical activity guidelines. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 19, 12And the 530-536.
Jurak, C, et al. (2021). The COVID-19 crisis in children’s fitness: creation of a barometric tool for public health participation for the Republic of Slovenia. frontiers in public health, 9, 644235.
Cole, H, et al. (2012). The physical inactivity pandemic: global action for public health. Lancet 380, 294-305.
Moore, S, et al (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on movement and play behaviors of Canadian children and youth: a national survey. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 17, 1, 85.
Mulcahy, M, et al. (2021). Sports medicine considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 49, 2, 512-521.
Petoshik, E, et al. (2019). Evidence-based best practice guidelines for the prevention of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in young female athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 47, 7, 1744-1753.
Wahl-Alexander, Z., & Camic, C. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on health-related fitness scores for school-aged males and females. pediatric exercise sciences, 33, 61-64.
Wilk, J, (2021). A pandemic within a pandemic? Levels of physical activity have decreased significantly in countries affected by COVID-19. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health Research, 18, 5, 2235.