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Rise in childhood obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to lifelong health consequences

Published: 26 January 2024

A dramatic increase in child obesity levels during the pandemic is set to cost the UK over £8 billion according to NIHR researchers.

Researchers led by NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) and the University of Southampton, in collaboration with researchers from the NIHR Imperial BRC, analysed data from the National Child Measurement Programme. They looked at BMI data on children in their first year of school (reception year, age 4–5) and their last year of primary education (year 6, age 10–11). 

Obesity levels in children increased during COVID-19 restrictions because of:

  • a lack of physical activity
  • unhealthy eating habits
  • home schooling and absence from school
  • cancellation of organised sports 
  • increases in screen time 
  • changes in sleep schedules 

Obesity went up from 10% to 14% in children aged 4-5 years during the pandemic, a rise of 45%. After the pandemic, overweight and obesity rates returned to expected levels for this age group. 

Overweight and obesity rates in school children aged 10-11 years went up from 35% to 41% during the pandemic. The rate declined after the pandemic, but was still 4% higher than the expected pre-pandemic trend. This percentage increase translates to 56,000 children who are at greater risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, strokes, arthritis and some types of cancer. The figures suggest successful weight reversal in older children is more difficult.

Costs of obesity

The researchers projected the impact of child BMI trends on adult health measures to estimate the costs to society. They found that the increase in overweight and obesity prevalence in 10 and 11-year-olds could cost the NHS £800 million. The cost to wider society could be at least £8.7 billion. This total includes costs relating to reduced productivity and quality of life.

Professor Keith Godfrey from the NIHR Southampton BRC and the University of Southampton was one of the study’s authors. He said:

“The surge in childhood obesity during the pandemic illustrates its profound impact on children’s development. Our projection that this will result in over £8.7 billion in additional healthcare, economic and wider social costs is hugely concerning. Alongside the even higher costs of the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity, it is clear that we need more radical new policy measures. This will help reduce obesity and secure wellbeing and prosperity for the country as a whole.”

Co-author Emeritus Professor Mark Hanson, also from the NIHR Southampton BRC, added:

“Once established, obesity has proven to be difficult to reverse. 60-85% of children with obesity remain obese in adulthood, increasing their risks of future ill health. Our finding of a rapid return to pre-pandemic levels of overweight and obesity in the youngest children suggests new policies should target under-fives. This is likely to be an effective means of tackling the growing problem of childhood obesity.” 

Obesity in deprived areas 

Children from the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas. This means they will face higher lifelong economic costs compared to wealthier populations.

Co-author Professor Neena Modi, from Imperial College London, said: “Obesity rates disproportionately affect children living in deprived communities - and the gap between the most and least deprived groups has widened over the past ten years.

“We need targeted interventions to bridge this alarming divide, especially in the under-fives where our study shows being overweight and obese can be reversed most readily. This will help ensure every child has an equal chance to grow up healthy.”

Supporting young people

Promoting healthy behaviours in early life can help prevent obesity. In Southampton, Early LifeLab is helping to tackle obesity among primary school children. It uses a series of ‘teaching toolkits’ to make the science behind the need for healthy diet, physical activity and sleep accessible to young children.

The programme is a partnership between the University of Southampton, the NIHR Southampton BRC and University Hospital Southampton. It is part-funded by Southampton City Council.

Dr Kath Woods-Townsend, programme lead for Early LifeLab and a co-author on the paper, said: “These findings show the importance of establishing healthy behaviours from an early age. We show children and young people how the choices they make and the habits they form can affect their health in later life. This gives them the knowledge and skills they need to make positive changes.”

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research and published in Plos One

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