Childhood obesity is a serious issue that has increased fivefold in the last 50 years. Today, one in three children in the United States is classified as overweight or obese. A variety of behaviors are linked to obesity in children, including lack of physical activity, diet, sleep and the amount of screen time a child gets. And new research suggests another factor – the lack of daily structure and routine, which unfortunately is the new normal for children during COVID-19.

For guidance on ways to deal with this issue, we turn to Keith Brazendale, a faculty member at UCF’s Department of Health Sciences who holds a doctorate in exercise science and has a research focus on childhood obesity.

Researchers developed the “Structured Days Hypothesis” in 2017 as a possible explanation for why children exhibit accelerated weight-gain during times when they don’t have consistent structure in their daily schedule, such as during the summer months. Several studies have since confirmed that young people have increased activity, better diets, more consistent sleep schedules and reduced screen time when they live with structure and routine – such as school days.

COVID-19 has significantly altered our children’s daily routines. Schools have transitioned online, and daily extracurricular activities – such as team sports – have been reduced or changed. As a result, children are spending more time being sedentary – often in front of a computer, cell phone or TV, which puts them at higher risk of gaining weight.

Children, especially, need a regular schedule to set their internal biological clocks. They do best and are healthiest when they have consistent eating schedules, bed/wake times, and activity opportunities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to help them by scheduling learning, lunch and outside activities at the same time every day — whether our children are attending school in-person or doing virtual learning at home. Setting such a schedule keeps your child’s internal clock on track.

Structure isn’t just about time. When they are eating at school, children get used to certain portion sizes, and variety of foods – school lunches have a “balanced plate” of fats, protein and carbs. Snacking is also regulated when kids are in school, helping to limit mindless eating throughout the day. Setting a consistent time for a morning or afternoon snack at home will help. Also, create a weekly schedule/menu of snack options that will help set expectations and maintain a household routine.

As parents and caregivers, we must recognize the importance of a daily routine for our children. Such routine is more vital now than ever before. Building an environment that encourages routine will help keep children healthy during COVID-19 and tackle childhood obesity.

COVID-19 health tips are brought to you by UCF’s Academic Health Sciences Center (AHSC), which includes the Colleges of Health Professions and Sciences (CHPS), Medicine, Nursing and Student Health Services. All COVID-19 tips appear here.