The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Teen’s Physical Health

COVID-19 Challenges to Physical Health

Adolescence is a time of rapid physical, mental, and social development. Social distancing, combined with school closures due to COVID-19, has made it more difficult for teens to stay physically active, eat right, and stick with a good sleep schedule. But there are plenty of ways parents and teens can work together to ensure that teens take care of their physical health. A healthy body is key to managing stress and therefore remaining emotionally healthy as well. 

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

The pandemic has not been all bad for teen health! The good news is that some youth have been able to sleep longer hours, partly because they no longer have to wake up as early for school. However, other teens may be experiencing higher anxiety, which can disrupt sleep. Sleep is a time for growth, including brain development! Quality of sleep is just as important as the amount of time spent asleep. Teens who do not get enough sleep may get sick more easily, have more trouble focusing in school, become anxious or depressed, and may have low self-esteem.

 Just as physical hygiene (like handwashing) is especially important now, it is essential teens practice good sleep hygiene. Establishing good sleep habits can help your teen sleep longer and better at night! 

  1. Set a sleep schedule. Because teens may not have to wake up as early for school during the pandemic, they may go to bed later. However, research shows that going to bed earlier helps teens have better sleep quality. To ensure good quality sleep, have your teen set a schedule with regular bedtimes. There are bedtime calculators available online to help figure out what time your teen should sleep! If your teen is having trouble going to bed early enough to be well-rested for school in the morning, try shifting their schedule by 10 minutes each day. This gradual shift can help teens’ sleep schedules get back on track.
  2. Create an effective sleep environment. Teens should aim for 8-10 hours of good quality sleep each night. Put up room darkening curtains, cover windows in tinfoil, or wear a sleep mask. These actions may help teens sleep later if the sun wakes them up too early. If possible, teens can benefit from doing their schoolwork outside of their bedrooms. Doing work in their bedrooms may cause teens to associate their bedrooms with studying and being awake instead of sleeping.
  3. Limit electronic device use. Turn off devices one hour before bed to help teens get better quality sleep. The type of light emitted from cell phones, TVs, and computer screens mimics the kind of light from the sun. Looking at a phone an hour before bed actually “tricks” your teen’s brain into thinking that it’s time to wake up. Instead of looking at their phone, teens could read a book (to themselves or siblings!), meditate, or do some light stretching.
  4. Spend quality time with family. The stress caused by the pandemic may increase anxiety in teens, which may affect their ability to sleep soundly. Spending quality time with family during the day can help teens feel closer or more connected with their families. Feeling connected and safe with their family may help teens feel more secure. In turn, feeling secure can make it easier for them to sleep at night. Try setting up regular family game nights or going on walks together.
  5. Let go of emotions before going to bed. Too many people bring their problems to bed.  They are too busy during the day to think about what troubles them, leaving feelings swirling when they hit the pillow. These emotions make it harder to fall asleep, and more likely they’ll wake up during the night to worry or problem-solve. Dealing with emotions and thinking them through is helpful. But encourage your teen to do this somewhere other than in bed because the bed should only be a place to fall asleep comfortably. 

Get Creative With Movement

School closures have affected more than adolescents’ education and social activities. As a result of school and recreation center closures, many adolescents can’t participate in sports or other physical activities. Overall, teens have been less physically active during the pandemic.

With schools and recreation centers closed, your teen may no longer have access to the same sports teams or opportunities to exercise that they used to. Instead of focusing on all of the restrictions on exercise, it might help to think of the pandemic as an opportunity for movement! Most youth should aim for 60 minutes of physical activity per day, along with muscle-building exercises three times per week. (For teens with mobility limitations, these guidelines may not apply. Talk to their doctor if you are unsure about what is right for your teen.)

  1. Get outside! There are plenty of ways to engage in safe, socially distanced forms of exercise. Teens may be able to safely take a walk with friends, or bike, scooter, or skateboard. Just be sure to wear a mask and stay six feet apart! Encourage your teen to take a walk with you. As a bonus, you can use that time to connect with your teen.
  2. Play family-based games.  Family activities are another way for you and your teen to exercise and connect. For example, you could play a movement-based game like charades, create games from chores (laundry basketball anyone?), or have a family competition to see who gets the most steps in a day.
  3. Use technology to find ways to move. Ask your teen what they enjoy doing for movement, and see if there are videos that support that type of exercise. If your teen likes to dance, you or your teen could look for videos that teach dance. Many gyms and fitness instructors are sharing workouts on social media for little to no cost that will help your family get moving. 

Focus On Healthy Foods

Healthy eating during the pandemic is not as easy as it seems. Many teens are eating more processed foods during the pandemic. Good nutrition is critical for proper physical growth, bone development, and brain development. Teens who eat highly processed foods or foods high in sugar are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and irritable. However, eating healthy, nutritious foods can help teens do better in school, improve mood, and reduce their risk of disease later in life. 

While a healthy diet and dietary supplements cannot prevent COVID-19, eating right can support the immune system. While the occasional sugary treat is fine to have, teens benefit from a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Check out this guide for tips on how to have a balanced diet. Eating healthy does not have to be boring! If your teen likes to cook, including them in meal planning and preparation is a great way to connect with them. Ask your teen what they like to eat, and see if there is a way to make their favorite foods more healthy!

Keep Up With Health Appointments

During the pandemic, there are many questions about what is safe and not safe to do. As doctors’ and dental offices begin to open, you may be asking, “Is it safe to bring my teen in for a visit?” Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. There are some types of visits your doctor may be able to do by telehealth (like follow-up visits). Other visits (such as for vaccines or annual check-ups) may require your teen to be seen in person. If you have any questions, reach out to your provider! They can give you a better sense of whether your teen needs to come in  and what precautions you should take before your in-person visit.

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About Ettya Fremont

Ettya Fremont, PhD, MPP, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is interested in positive youth development, specifically for youth with special health care needs, and adolescent moral development.

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