Health

French study shows lockdown reduced kids' physical and intellectual capacities

Two-thirds of French youngsters between 11- and 17-years-old face an increased risk of health problems.
Two-thirds of French youngsters between 11- and 17-years-old face an increased risk of health problems. AFP - NICOLAS TUCAT

Successive lockdowns in France have had a “catastrophic” impact on children’s health and cognitive skills, which could favour chronic illnesses in adulthood, a French study warns.

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A team from Clermont Ferrand hospital in central France followed 90 seven and eight year olds, comparing their behaviour in September 2019 -  before France’s first lockdown -  and then in September 2020.

They found that the children had put on weight, struggled to run short distances without getting out of breath, and could no longer accomplish basic cognitive tasks within a given time.

Details of the study were revealed to Le Monde daily newspaper on Tuesday, and preliminary results have been submitted for publication.

"The results are catastrophic,” Martine Duclos, head of the National Observatory of physical activity and sedentariness (ONAPS) and coordinator of the study, told Le Monde

In one year, the body mass index (BMI) increased by an average of 2 to 3 points. "We've never seen anything like this," she said. “Sporty children with no health or weight problems have put on 5 to 10 kg because they stopped doing sport. And not all of them have resumed physical activity."

The researchers found the children’s cognitive skills had diminished by up to 40 percent in some cases. While all the schoolchildren finished tests linking letters to corresponding numbers within a given time in September 2019, a year later many did not.  

"The year of confinement has been catastrophic," Duclos said, given that childhood is a "crucial moment for brain plasticity".

The study's results are all the more worrying because, even before the pandemic, 87 percent of 11-17 year olds in France did not meet the World Health Organization's recommendation of 60 minutes of daily physical exercise.

During the first lockdown, only 0.6 percent of them were reaching this threshold, with just 4.8 percent of 5-11 year olds taking enough daily exercise, according to the ONAPS Report Card on the lifestyles of children and adolescents.

Reduced health capital

France has lived through three Covid-19 lockdowns with varying levels of restrictions. For some periods, outdoor physical activity was limited to just one hour a day and sports clubs, gymnasiums and swimming pools were closed. They re-opened for the under-18s on 19 May after a six-month closure.

An assessment by the French National Agency for Food Safety (Anses), published in November 2020, showed that 66 percent of young people aged 11 to 17 "present a worrying health risk" because they exceeded the thresholds of more than two hours of screen time and less than 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

Doctors warn that health capital is built up during childhood and the lack of physical activity can lead to a loss of cardio-respiratory fitness.

Long term, this can lead to the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

This is not the first time doctors and sports specialists have signalled the alarm over the growing sedentariness engendered by the health crisis.

Duclos and a host of sports personalities including Zinedine Zidane signed an open letter in a weekly newspaper in October 2020 calling for sports centres and gymnasiums to be kept open.

Moving around is as important as knowing how to read, write and count Professor Duclos wrote in February, adding that sedentariness is sapping life and putting children in danger.

In November 2020, 68 senators called for more freedom of movement and warned of the risk of a sedentary lifestyle.

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