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Since the onset of the pandemic, there’s been no shortage of reminders from government agencies and the media to stay indoors and maintain distance from those outside of your immediate circle—often with one exception. Officials had stated that time can still be spent in nature and open recreation areas, so long as adequate distance can be maintained from others. However, this caveat hasn’t prevented a noticeable decline in children’s outdoor time during the pandemic. 

Whether it’s team sports being cancelled, local gyms being closed, or attending PE class from behind a computer screen, youth spent less time outdoors and exercising in 2020—and this adds to a problem more than a decade in the process. However, the Pima County Health Department has noted a consistent decline in local cases, and dozens of local summer youth activities are opening to get kids outdoors and active again. 

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, parents observed a decrease in physical activity and increase in sedentary behavior between February and May 2020. The study, “Early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical activity and sedentary behavior in children living in the U.S.,” reported that children engaged in about 90 minutes of school-related sitting and over 8 hours of leisure-related sitting a day. It went on to state that short-term changes in physical activity and sedentary behavior in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched, leading to increased risk of obesity in children.

Local schools attempted to reduce this sedentary behavior caused by children being forced to stay at home, but many PE teachers agreed the amount of physical activity of a PE class simply cannot be matched over a video call. 

Lisa Powell, a coach and PE teacher at Amphitheater Middle School, had her students work two days in the gym and two days outdoors during a normal week. Activities she taught included volleyball, lacrosse, badminton, floor hockey, weight lifting and more. When the pandemic hit and students learned from home, these sports were converted to doing pushups and weight lifting in front of a computer screen, as well as reading nutrition labels on household foods. 

“Accountability was pretty tough over Zoom,” Powell said. “They do fade out sometimes, or you can’t see how hard they’re working. They really forgot how to play. Not just compete, but play. They do much, much better with us back on campus.” 

Though Amphitheater Middle School does not host its own summer camps, it does work with Project ACHIEVE, which is Amphitheater School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. This before- and after-school program furthers student engagement in various subjects, such as math, science and exercise.

“We don’t have camps here, per se, but I encourage my kids to go to camps,” Powell said. 

A survey of children’s exercise and play time during COVID also found that only 5% of children were meeting the World Health Organization’s movement behavior guidelines such as an hour of vigorous physical activity every day. 

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has noted that American teens can spend up to nine hours watching or using screens daily. And while these can be educational and entertaining hours, too much screening time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, mood problems and less time learning other ways to relax and have fun. 

“I think the disruption related to the pandemic has impacted all members of families,” said Michael Sulkowski, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Education who has also worked as a school psychologist. “But I think one of the big things that isn’t talked about enough is how children are not in environments where there’s the social and emotional elements of learning—you can’t quite get that over distance

learning.” 

However, he believes students are resilient and will be able to bounce back after this unusual past year. Once they’re back in traditional educational and group settings, the majority of children should be fine. 

“Keep kids moving,” Sulkowski said. “Any type of physical activity is probably going to be beneficial. Of course, this was a huge problem before the pandemic. The indolence of kids staring at screens is not new, we’ve been dealing with this for a decade… and the data of physical activity being important for kids is

monumental.” 

During his work, Sulkowski said he saw multiple examples of student issues resolved with physical exercise. 

“As a school psychologist, and also while working on my doctorate, I was part of a healthy lifestyles group. The main focus was getting kids active and teaching parents how to be better consumers for food,” Sulkowski said. “There is an impact there, and it’s something that translates pretty easily.” 

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