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The challenges of keeping kids active during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Nemours
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The pandemic has upended how kids are learning as schools work in either hybrid or remote formats.  And that has raised questions about the impact on their mental health.

But the pandemic can also affect children’s physical health – especially this time of year when going outside to play may be less of an option.

Contributor Larry Nagengast looks how COVID is curtailing kids’ exercise. and what some are trying to do about that.

Unless there’s snow on the ground, it can be tough in winter to get kids outside for exercise – or just to burn off some excess energy. The challenge is even greater during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many schools operating in hybrid or remote-only mode.

“It’s a double whammy,” says Dr. Kate Cronan, pediatric emergency medicine physician and medical editor for KidsHealth.org at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. “It’s chilly and you don’t have school gym class.”

That got Chika Chukwuocha thinking. Chukwuocha, who created the popular I Can Do 26.2 running program in Wilmington in 2015, was frustrated last summer, when the five-year celebration she had hoped to hold fell victim to the pandemic.

"It's a double whammy. It's chilly and you don't have school gym class." - Dr. Kate Cronan, pediatric emergency medicine physician at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children.

“2020 was a hell year,” she says. “We put the kids’ safety above everything else and started thinking about how to get children active with winter activities.”

Chukwuocha, who received a Governor’s Award for Volunteer Service in 2018 for the running initiative, which trains youngsters to run a marathon distance – 26.2 miles – over six weeks in the summer, came up with something new: a four-week online fitness series targeted at children ages 4-12, the same age group served by the running program.

The virtual workout series, called Winter ACTIVation, starts Monday (Jan. 18) at 6 p.m. with a 45-minute online session that starts with stretching and a warmup, followed by a variety of exercises and ending with a cooldown. Participants in the series, which costs $10, will have access to the session throughout the week, so they can do the exercises over and over, until the next session.

Winter ACTIVation registration: Families can use this link to register for the Winter ACTIVation program. There is no deadline; registration will remain open even after the first session.

Rebeca Reyes, a certified personal trainer with Core Ten Fitness, part of the Titus Sports Academy at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, will lead the workouts. Although she is used to working with adults, Reyes says she grew up in a family with 13 children so “I’m pretty good at knowing what works with kids.” Being part of a large family also means that Reyes has had to exercise with only limited space available – an important consideration for indoor workouts.

“We’re thinking about what you can do in a 4-foot by 4-foot space, where you can only take two or three steps in front of you,” she says.

Among the exercise options, she says, are pushups, jumping jacks, planks and bear claws.

While Chukwuocha misses the face-to-face contact she would have with youngsters under normal circumstances, she recognizes that building a virtual presence can broaden her reach.

She has been promoting the exercise program through the running program’s website and its Facebook page and has already received registrations from families in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas and California. As of Wednesday, 32 families had signed up.

What schools are doing

In the current school year, as Delaware public schools have been bouncing between remote and hybrid learning environments, physical education has taken on a different look.

“Each district is a little different,” says Sabra Collins, education associate for physical education, health and wellness at the state Department of Education. Some are offering phys ed classes in a synchronous setting, with students performing activities while the teacher gives instructions in real time. Others have chosen an asynchronous model, with teachers recording activities that students can accomplish at a time that is convenient to them.

School districts have also developed partnerships with YMCAs and fitness centers, with some offering students free workouts or providing instructional videos online.

"My advice is to encourage movement. It could be anything - exercises, a walk around the development, playing catch." - Sabra Collins, education associate at Delaware Department of Education

During the summer, physical education teachers across the state participated in virtual meetings during which they shared ideas for programming, looking for activities that could be done in a small area, with little or no equipment, Collins says.

“My advice is to encourage movement,” she says. “It could be anything – exercises, a walk around the development, playing catch.”

It’s important to make the exercise sessions fun, she says, noting that some teachers have suggested creating an at-home bowling game using empty water bottles for pins and a rolled-up sock as a ball.

Cronan, at Nemours, recommends that children in the elementary grades get at least a half-hour a day of exercise, both indoors and out.

When it’s cold, “they don’t want to go outside as much,” she says, so parents “have to look for things that are fun to do.”

Even a walk can be fun, she says, by varying the route, trying to walk a longer distance each day, or perhaps designing a scavenger hunt by creating a list of items the kids might find along the way.

If the back yard is large enough, have the kids run around the perimeter and keep track of their times. Or set up fitness course, with spots for different exercises set up around the yard.

Flying a kite doesn’t have to wait for spring, Cronan says, and children will have to do some running to keep it aloft.

In southern Delaware, families might consider taking a trip to the beach and walking in the sand.

Indoors, Cronan suggests jumping jacks and running in place and, if there’s enough room to do it safely, jumping rope.

Dancing is another good form of exercise for kids, especially to the music videos they see on YouTube. “The faster the music the better,” Cronan says.

Yoga is another option – as it improves flexibility, builds muscle strength and is not as exhausting as some other exercises, she says. Yoga programs made for children can be found on television or on phone apps, she adds.

Many kids will enjoy exercising with that old reliable – the hula hoop. “We used to love it as kids in exercise classes,” Cronan says, adding that “I’ve seen some 6-year-olds doing hula hoops really well.”

Whatever the exercise, it’s a good idea for parents to participate with their children.

“When parents join in, they can make it a friendly activity,” Chukwuocha says. “They can encourage healthy habits in their children by role-modeling it.”

Nutrition is important too

Chukwuocha is quick to note that those healthy habits include good nutrition. One of her motivations for launching I Can Do 26.2 was her concern with childhood obesity, and she hopes to incorporate some nutritional messaging into the four-week Winter ACTIVation programming. “Combating obesity takes more than just running around. You have to eat healthy too,” she says.

"When parents join in, they can make it a friendly activity. They can encourage healthy habits in their children by role-modeling it." - Chika Chukwuocha, I Can Do 26.2 running program.

When the running program resumes this summer, she plans to add a nutrition component on Saturdays, giving parents and children a chance to learn easy-to-prepare recipes for healthy foods. “We want ot expose kids to healthy nutritional decisions,” she says.

At Nemours, Cronan says she hasn’t noticed an uptick in obesity issues among pediatric patients, but she points out that the pandemic has caused some patients to put off visits to the hospital and its clinics.

“It is important for parents to monitor what their children are eating,” she says. “If the kids have a healthy diet at home, they won’t gain as much.”

No matter what the situation, Collins stresses that parents should do whatever they can to make sure their children stay active.

“Movement doesn’t have to be structured,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be strict or stringent.

Fitness links

For families interested in doing more to keep their children fit, here are some links suggested by the Delaware Department of Education:

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.