How Has COVID-19 Impacted Physical Activity for Youth?

Loss of physical activity can harm physical, emotional, and social health.

Amid COVID-19 illness and isolation, some youth and families have experienced a loss of physical activity, according to a new report from Safe Routes Partnership, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: COVID-19’s Impact on Youth Physical Activity and Safe Routes to School.”

The report explores research and expert perspectives on COVID-19’s impact on physical and emotional health to paint a holistic picture of how physical activity has changed during COVID-19.

The report also has recommendations for supporting physical activity strategies and centering physical, emotional, and social health in equitable pandemic recovery plans.

Our team at Salud America! was honored to contribute to this report along with thought leaders from six other national organizations working to improve physical activity.

“Unless physical activity is designed into kids’ lives through Safe Routes to School, P.E., and after school programs, for so many families that are facing economic strain, it is such a burdensome task to ask families to take separate time for physical activity,” said Amanda Merck, a Salud America! digital content curator.

“It’s a double burden if you don’t have those opportunities where you live. We need to address the fact that we’ve built unequal neighborhoods where it’s simply not possible for kids to play.”

Why Physical Activity is So Important

Lack of physical activity is linked to approximately $117 billion in annual health care costs and about 10% of premature mortality, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition.

According to the guidelines, physical activity benefits include:

  • Improved bone health and weight status for children ages 3-5
  • Improved cognitive function for youth ages 6-13
  • Brain health benefits, including possible improved cognitive function, reduced anxiety and depression risk, and improved sleep and quality of life
  • Reduced risk of several types of cancer
  • Reduced risk of excessive weight gain, gestational diabetes, and postpartum depression for pregnant women
  • Improved physical function and quality of life for people with various chronic medical conditions

Physical activity can also reduce the risk of all-cause and disease-specific mortality for people with various chronic medical conditions. These are the same diseases that increase risk for COVID-19, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Even small increases in moderate-intensity physical activity provide health benefits.

That is why health experts are worried about any reduction in physical activity.

Consistent physical inactivity is even associated with more severe COVID-19 outcomes, according to a recent study.

The study also explored underlying medical conditions and risk factors, such as history of cancer, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, history of organ transplant, and obesity.

“Being consistently inactive was a stronger risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes than any of the underlying medical conditions and risk factors identified by CDC, except for age and organ transplant history,” according to the study.

Reduced Physical Activity and Increased Stress During COVID-19

Physical activity is an important and modifiable risk factor for many of the most persistent and expensive health problems, including COVID-19.

However, during COVID-19, not all families were able to take advantage of spending more time outdoors and walking or biking in their neighborhood.

Not only has COVID-19 disproportionately impacted low-income communities, Latinos, and other communities of color, but COVID-19 has further limited opportunities for physical activity, particularly among these populations which were already burdened by inequities in access to physical activity infrastructure and programming.

Many of these communities observed a decrease in opportunities for physical activity, according to the new report from the Safe Routes Partnership.

The new report summarizes quantitative data from:

  • Emerging studies
  • A survey of Safe Routes to School practitioners
  • Listening sessions with Safe Routes to School practitioners
  • Interviews with representatives from seven national organizations leading efforts to improve physical activity and health

The data show that some families have yards, safe sidewalks in their neighborhoods, and access to parks to alleviate stress and get some physical activity.

But other families do not have these assets.

After all, there are drastic inequities in who has access to sidewalks and parks, with sidewalks in 90% of high-income communities and only 40% of low-income communities.

“Neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color and low-income families are often cut off from accessing great public spaces and essential services via active transportation and public transit due to many factors such as federal highways built through their communities and a lack of safe infrastructure like bike lanes and sidewalks,” the new Safe Routes Partnership report states.

COVID-19’s Impact on Youth Physical Activity
COVID-19’s Impact on Youth Physical Activity

Additionally, some families rely on school programming, like Safe Routes to School, recess, physical education, youth sports, and afterschool programs for physical activity.

“These youth and families were often left behind during the pandemic, stay-at-home mandates, and virtual learning,” the report states.

As communities prioritized immediate COVID-19 mitigation, physical activity was neglected.

“Many kids and families didn’t get to experience the joy and relief of physical activity, while they were constrained to the inequitably built environments of their homes and neighborhoods,” the report states.

That’s why national organizations see a reduction in physical activity as an emergency for youth.

“As we begin to emerge from this public health crisis, more than ever, we’ll need physical activity programming and safe walking and biking infrastructure to keep us getting around our communities and to everyday destinations and essential services,” the report states.

Recommendations for Centering Equity and Physical Activity

To support physical activity efforts and recovery plans moving forward, the report recommends:

  • Centering the lives, stories, and priorities of Latino, black, indigenous, and people of color communities
  • Investing in physical activity and physical education programs and strategies
  • Reimagining and recreating the built environment
  • Prioritizing play and physical activity

For example, reimaging and recreating the built environment means rethinking transportation.

“The pandemic highlighted the need for safe, affordable, and accessible transportation options for all,” the report states. “It also made clear that access to public transit and the availability of safe, quality walking and biking infrastructure are essential.”

Going forward, physical activity needs to be a consideration in recovery plans with specific attention to restoring human connection and health and addressing inequitable infrastructure.

“We know that to truly move forward, we have to get physically moving again,” the report states.

Here’s What You Can Do

Read the Safe Routes Partnership report, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: COVID-19’s Impact on Youth Physical Activity and Safe Routes to School.

Spread the word on social media: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what research has long shown – not all communities, people, or places have the same access to safe places to walk and roll in everyday life. Explore the facts in @SafeRoutesNow’s new report: [BITLINK]

Learn more about systemic inequities that determine if neighborhoods are designed with safe routes to walk and bike and safe places to play.

Find out if your state supports walking, biking, and physical activity.

Download a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card!

The report card shows many people face inadequate social emotional support, premature death, obesity, access to mental health care providers, and more. Then you can compare your local information to your state and to the country.

Email your Health Equity Report Card to community leaders and share it on social media. Then use it to make the case to address food insecurity and nutrition security where help is needed most!

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