New data shows drop in SC children’s physical health, fitness following pandemic

Published: Sep. 22, 2023 at 6:38 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Data has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic took a major toll on students’ learning and their mental health.

Now, newly released results from a fitness study show the physical health of South Carolina children also took a hit during that time.

Results from the SC FitnessGram, an annual physical fitness test that many students in South Carolina take, show their physical health fell behind during the pandemic.

One Columbia pediatrician said she has seen the proof in her office every day for the last few years.

“More kids dealing with problems with weight gain, more kids dealing with problems of not having access to healthy foods, and kids in general just not being as active as they were before, not getting as much exercise,” Dr. Deborah Greenhouse said.

According to the SC FitnessGram project results from the 2021-2022 school year, the most recent data, two out of five students across the state are now considered overweight or obese.

Data shows heart and lung health declined by 9% compared to the years preceding the pandemic, and more than half of the students tested don’t meet the national standards for cardiorespiratory fitness.

“The fact that this was reflected in reductions in fitness I think really points to how much their physical activity was probably reduced because it probably takes a substantial change in physical activity to reduce a kid’s fitness,” Dr. Russell Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, said.

Children living in poverty also scored worse on every measure.

“It does point to just how important the school setting is in terms of kids receiving the physical activity that we know they need to develop properly, to be healthy now and in the future,” Pate said.

Both he and Greenhouse said there is likely a multilayered cause of this drop from results in the years prior to the pandemic.

“A perfect storm of kids being out of school, a perfect storm of a lot of kids not having access to healthy foods, not having access to team sports, not having access to physical activity in school, everything on top of each other,” Greenhouse said.

To turn this trend around, she said the state and schools will have to take a multilayered approach to improve kids’ access to physical activity and healthy foods.

Greenhouse pointed to a bill filed at the State House that would provide free school meals to every student in South Carolina as a great place to start toward the latter goal.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said. “But if you flip that and you spin it positive, it also shows you just how much of an opportunity we have right now.”

Because these results are from the 2021-2022 school year, Pate notes it is possible that results already have started to turn around.

But they won’t know until they get data next fall from the last school year.

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