Arkansas Public School Student Obesity Reaches All-Time High During COVID-19 Pandemic

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – The percentage of Arkansas public school students with a body mass index measurement in the obese range rose to an all-time high in the 2020-21 school year – from results that coincide with the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – according to a new ACHI report on childhood obesity.

The proportion of students designated as obese increased significantly in all grades measured for the 2020-21 school year. More than one in four children (26%) had a BMI measurement classified as obese, the highest percentage since data collection began in 2003, and up from 22.9% the last year.

According to the ACHI report, the year-over-year increase is significantly higher than typical year-over-year increases. Between the 2016-17 school year and the 2019-20 school year, the percentage of students designated as obese increased from 22% to 22.9%, compared to the much larger one-year jump to 26% during the 2020-21 school year.

“Studies in other states have shown similar weight increases in children during the first wave of the pandemic,” said Mike Motley, ACHI’s chief analytical officer. “This is likely the result of decreased physical activity and reduced access to healthy school meals as schools shifted to virtual learning during times of high COVID-19 transmission.”

Compared to the previous school year, the percentage of obese students (BMI of 30 or more) in the 2020-2021 school year increased more among young children than among older children. However, a greater percentage of older students were identified as obese compared to younger students, which is consistent with results from previous years.

“These findings underscore the need for families, educators and policymakers to help Arkansas children make healthy choices about nutrition and physical activity,” Motley said. “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. Obesity-related health problems cost the US healthcare system $190 billion each year.

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

The ACHI Region School and District Student BMI Dashboard details student weight classification percentages by public school district, school, and grade – information that was used in the preparation of applications for grant and other funding requests to gain support for a variety of obesity-related interventions in the state. In addition to requiring BMI data for grant proposals, the Arkansas Department of Education has required schools to include BMI information in their annual improvement plans.

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