Battle of the Bulge: Obesity on the rise during pandemic

All the evidence you need is to just look in the mirror as anecdotally speaking, weight gain during this ongoing pandemic is a thing.

Now there’s data to back that up, at least for public school students in Arkansas.

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The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement released a report on childhood obesity this week that showed the body mass index, or BMI, had increased to a “record level in the 2020-21 school year.”

The numbers show that 26 percent or roughly 1 in 4 students had a BMI that qualified as obese.

The previous year, that number was 22.9 percent.

“Studies in other states have shown similar weight increases among children during the pandemic’s first wave,” said ACHI Director of Analytics Mike Motley. “This is likely a result of decreases in physical activity and reduced access to healthy school meals as schools switched to virtual learning during times of high Covid-19 transmission.”

Obese is defined as having a BMI of 30 or more and the report shows that the increase was among younger students then those older. Being overweight young can lead to pretty profound health issues down the line.

“Overweight or obese children are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems,” Motley said. “Obesity-related health problems are estimated to cost the United States’ health care system $190 billion each year.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas ranks 47th among states for obesity among adults, with 36% of the adult population designated as obese in 2020.

ACHI’s local area school and district student BMI dashboard details student weight classification percentages by public school district, school, and grade — information that has been used in the preparation of grant applications and other funding requests to secure support for a variety of obesity-related interventions in the state.

Act 1220 of 2003, passed by the Arkansas 84th General Assembly, spearheaded initiatives to address obesity among school-age children statewide. Under this legislation, schools are required to collect students’ height and weight measurements and estimate a BMI percentile by age for each student.