Lockdowns: The catastrophic impact on children’s health

Lockdowns: The catastrophic impact on children’s health

A soon to be published long-term study involving 90 second and third-grade children in central France has revealed a spectacular decline in physical and cognitive capacities during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The numbers are catastrophic,” according to Martine Duclos, head of the sports medicine department of the University Hospital of Clermont-Ferrand and director of the National Observatory of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviors (ONAPS).

The implications of the situation are indeed dire. Obesity and sedentarism are expected to lead to an increase in chronic diseases in this population in years to come.

Speaking with Le Monde, she described how many now have difficulty running fast between pads placed 10 meters apart. The researchers used this classic shuttle run test that measures oxygen take-up capacity and found that “some children, already badly out of breath, did not manage to reach the first pad before the first beep.” This was also unprecedented, she underscored, adding that some were now incapable of doing a motor skills course, in which they are expected to complete a timed obstacle race.

Measurement of the 2nd and 3rd-graders cognitive capacity was accomplished using a number of simple exercises such as asking the children to connect letters with numbers in alphabetical order within a given time. All succeeded this test in September 2019. One year later, a large proportion were unable to finish within the set time limit, leading Martine Duclos to comment: “One year of confinement has had catastrophic results, at a crucial point of neural plasticity.”

To be precise, only about two months of the researched period (from March 2020 to September 2020) were during full lockdown; after classes resumed in primary schools, there were still restrictions on collective and indoor sports, public swimming baths and the like. The time segment also included two months of summer vacation. Wearing masks at school all day, including during recess outdoors, only became compulsory for the 6-11 age group as of November 2020.

According to a previous study by ONAPS published last January, only 4.8 percent of the 5-11 age-group (2.8 percent of girls and 6.5 percent of boys) got at least one hour of daily physical activity during the first confinement, while only 0.6 percent of teenagers (11 to 17 -year-olds) reached this recommended level of physical activity (as compared with an already meagre pre-lockdown proportion of 13 percent).

At the same time, multiple studies in various countries quoted a rise in screen time among 60 percent of children and adolescents, with teleworking of adults appearing as an aggravating factor. 25 percent of children under 6 years of age spent less time in active play (but 50 percent spent more, according to their parents) during lockdown. School is compulsory in France from ages 3 to 16.

The report concluded: “How can one be surprised at these reports that clearly show a decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentarism when even before COVID-19… the majority of our children and adolescents already failed to respect recommendations. The setting up of a lockdown, which de facto set a limit on social interaction and physical liberties, could do nothing else than reinforce this alarming situation and make it worse.” Its authors expected that the second French lockdown in France, albeit less severe, would reveal similar deterioration; they stressed the need for further research into these periods of time.

More largely, a study published online by ONAPS last February assessing all age-groups quoted the following worrying results:

Forty-two percent of children, 58.7% of adolescents, 36.4% of adults, and 39.2% of older people had reduced physical activity levels. Particularly, active transportation and endurance practices showed a significant decrease, while domestic, muscular strengthening, and flexibility activities increased. Sitting time and screen time increased, respectively, in 36.3% and 62.0% of children, 25.5% and 69.0% in adolescents, 24.6% and 41.0% in adults, and 36.1% and 32.1% in seniors.

But instead of noting that lockdowns do more harm than good and could lead to lasting and widespread damage in large sectors of the population, and therefore urging the authorities not to have recourse to such measures again, the authors concluded that the population simply needed to alter its behavior during future lockdowns.

The COVID-19 confinement period led to important modifications in individual movement behaviors at all ages, particularly favoring decreased physical activity and increased sedentariness. These findings suggest that the authors need to inform and encourage people to maintain and improve their physical activities and to change their sedentary time habits during post-confinement and during the period of a potential future lockdown.

In other words, the authors suggest that yet more government messaging and recommendations should accompany existing COVID measures and take for granted that further lockdowns are on the cards.