Children and adolescents were 20% less physically active during COVID-19 pandemic

Meta-analysis paper calls for targeted public health initiatives to address the crisis

July 25, 2022
Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
July 25, 2022

During the COVID-19 pandemic, children and adolescents had reduced physical activity, underscoring the need to boost their access to resources related to such activity. This is the conclusion reached by a review paper appearing in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Numerous physical distancing measures were put in place during the pandemic to help stop the spread of the coronavirus,” said Kimberley D. Lakes, a professor of clinical psychiatry and neuroscience in the UC Riverside School of Medicine and a coauthor on the review paper. “This negatively affected child and adolescent physical activity levels.”

Kimberley Lakes
Kimberley D. Lakes.

Lakes and her colleagues reviewed 126 articles published in English in 2020-2021, using sources such as PubMed, PsycInfo, SPORTDiscus, Web of Science, Scopus, CINAHL, and MEDLINE. Their meta-analysis included 22 studies that met their full inclusion criteria. 

They found a decrease of 17 minutes per day — or 20% — in children’s moderate-to-vigorous physical activity from pre-pandemic to during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reduction was larger for physical activity at higher intensities. The reductions during the pandemic were also larger in regions at higher latitudes.

“Children’s movement behaviors should be at the forefront of pandemic recovery efforts,” Lakes said. “There is an urgent need for public health initiatives to revive young people’s interest in physical activity during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.” This is particularly important given the well-known physical and mental health benefits of physical activity.

To address the need for creating lasting physical activity behavior change, the authors call for public health campaigns to be child-centered, targeting a variety of physical activity modalities and incorporating families and the wider community.

In addition to Lakes, the investigative team included Ross D. Neville, Giampiero Tarantino, and Rosemary Beck of University College Dublin, Ireland; Will G. Hopkins of Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia; Catherine E. Draper of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; and Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 

Lakes, a psychologist, provides mentorship for Neville, a sports scientist; they have a number of ongoing research collaborations examining the mental health benefits of exercise, inclusive approaches to sport and physical activity, and the impact of sport and exercise programs on youth development.

The review paper is titled “Global Changes in Child and Adolescent Physical Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.”