Children ate more fruit but exercised less during COVID lockdown

Studies have shed light on the impact of lockdowns on health, with one showing that despite an increase in fruit and vegetable intake, children gained weight

File photo
File photo

Two studies in the Malta Medical Journal have shed a light on the impact of lockdowns on health, with one study showing that the Maltese in general exercised more but at a lower intensity than before; and another showing that despite an increase in fruit and vegetable intake, children gained weight.

The COVID-19 lockdown contributed to an increased weight gain in Maltese children mainly due to a more sedentary lifestyle. But it also led to an increase in fruit and vegetable intake and a decrease in the consumption of sweetened beverages.

The online questionnaire among 521 parents showed the preferred beverage of Maltese children during the pandemic was water (94%) with only 14% reporting a preference for sugar-sweetened beverages in addition to water.

The authors called it a positive improvement from the data published in the Food and Nutrition Policy and Action Plan for Malta in 2015, that reported an average of 44% of youths admitting to drinking sugar-sweetened beverages on a daily basis.

One reason for this “was the enforced relocation of food and beverage consumption to home rather than from restaurants or take-aways”.

Maltese children also increased their intake of fruit and vegetables, although still not up to recommended amounts. On average, the intake was around 84% of the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

This could be the result of an increased availability of fruit and vegetables at home during the lockdown.

But more than a quarter of parents noted that their children were eating more food during lockdown, perhaps because of the immediate availability of food throughout the day or as a result of boredom.

Although there are no previous studies on sleep patterns of Maltese children to compare with, the study suggests that lockdown had a positive effect on children’s sleep, and most children achieved the appropriate hours of recommended sleep.

Still, the authors of the study expressed concern on the high proportion (57%) of Maltese children who had tablets, laptops, video games, mobile phones or a TV in their bedroom.

Moreover the study confirms that despite healthier nutritional habits, most children gained in weight. 40% of parents claimed their children’s weight was between 1-2kg lower at the start of the pandemic, 8% claimed their children’s weight was 3-5kg lower, whereas 46% claimed it remained the same.

The increase in weight is attributed is attributed to an increase in sedentary behaviour, a decrease in moderate to vigorous exercise (MVPA) and increased food intake.

Over 95% of children spent an additional two hours or more in sedentary activities, while fewer children achieved the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise during the lockdown.

While before the pandemic, 21% reported achieving the recommended one hour of daily exercise, this decreased to 17% during lockdown.

Moreover, prior to the pandemic, 54% of children were able to achieve the daily recommended of exercise at least 5 days a week or more. But this decreased to 32% during the pandemic.

95% of children spent at least two hours or more doing various activities sitting down.

70% of parents noted that their children were more sedentary during the pandemic when compared to their ‘normal’, pre-pandemic lifestyle.

The study, authored by paediatricians Amanda Fenech and Simon Attard Montalto, advocated for a better balance of home-schooling hours, physical activity and nutrition as part of a strategy against childhood obesity, especially if countries have to revert to home-schooling in the future.

COVID: People exercised more but at lower intensity

Another study also published in the Malta Medical Journal shows that people exercised more during the COVID-19 lockdown, but the intensity of this exercise decreased and so did their water consumption.

This emerges from a study based on 995 responses to an online questionnaire conducted by members of the Willingness Clinic.

One possible reason is that since outside behaviour was limited and scarce, people wanted it more and had a higher affinity towards it, thereby increasing the chances of exercise.

Also, as citizens felt powerless and out of control, they engaged in activities which gave them meaning as well as self-control. Exercise may have given people a motivation in times of crisis.

“COVID-19 engendered countless changes in one’s life, such as job loss and death. Here a person might feel not in control of his own life. Choosing to engage in more physical activities may be one of the reasons people choose, to successfully cope with the traumatic event of the current pandemic.”

But the study also found that the intensity levels of exercise have decreased, possibly down to the closure of gyms and lack of heavyweight equipment at people’s homes.

The decrease of intensity was also attributed to people choosing to walk, run or exercise at home as their main form of exercise.

The study also claims water consumption levels decreased, again reflecting the decrease in exercise intensity.

Danica Cassar, Claire Bonello, Kimberley Grixti, Nicole Falzon and Matthew Bartolo conducted the study, which recruited participants through convenience sampling, with the questionnaire shared on social media and collected from 16 April to 16 May 2020.