Addicted to your phone?  How to separate from your phone for a healthy lifestyle[1]

Erik Peper, PhD[2] and Monica Almendras

Our evolutionary traps with technology

Maintaining and optimizing health at the computer means re-envisioning our relationship with technology—and reclaiming health, happiness, and sanity in a plugged-in world.  We have the ability to control everything from our mobile phones without needing to get up from our seat. Work, social life and online learning all involve the mobile phone or some type of smart devices.

A convenient little device that is supposed to simplify our lives has actually trapped us into a vicious cycle of relying on it for every single thing we must do.  We spend most of our day being exposed to digital displays on our smartphones, computers, gaming consoles, and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in the content we are viewing. From work related emails or tasks, to spending our free time looking at the screen for texting, playing games, and updating social media sites on a play-by-play of what we are eating, wearing, and doing. We click on one hyperlink after the other and create a vicious cycle trapped for hours until we realize we need to move. We are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive and then, we realize we have wasted another day. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.

  • Facebook about an hour per day
  • Instagram just under an hour per day
  • Texting about 45 minutes per day
  • Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
  • Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
  • Twitter, about 25 minutes per day

Adolescents and college students interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day. That is a lot of hours spent on staring at the screen, which it is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen. In time, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional, and social health. The powerful audiovisual formats override our desires to do something different, that some of us become enslaved to streaming videos, playing virtual games, or texting. We then tell ourselves that the task that needs to be done, will be finished later. That later becomes never by the end of the day, since the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupt and/or capture our attention. This difficulty to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli roots in our survival instincts.

Each time visual or auditory stimuli occur, we automatically check it out and see if it is a friend or foe, safety or danger. It is such an automatic response that we are unaware are reacting. The good news is that we all have experienced this compelling effect. Even when we are waiting for a response and the notifications has not arrived, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notification is long. As one student said, “Don’t worry, they’ll respond. It’s only been 30 seconds”. Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing. Rather than finishing our work or task, we continuously check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.

Unfortunately, some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation, loneliness–sometimes called phoneliness (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020Kardaras, 2017). Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc.) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested that include not only media, but junk food as well.

In my class survey of 99 college students, 85% reported experiencing anxiety, 48% neck and should tension, and 41% abdominal discomfort.

We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age. Instead, it should be used in moderation and to be aware of how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Unfortunately, most people -especially children- have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure. Parental control and societal policies may be needed to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age.

Zoom Fatigue- How to reduce it and configure your brain for better learning

Zoom became the preferred platform for academic teaching and learning for synchronous education during the pandemic. Thus, students and faculty have been sitting and looking at the screen for hours end. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from their mobile phones, social media triggers, and emails; which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019). These digital distractions cause people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention- a process labeled semi-tasking’ -meaning getting twice as much done and half as well.

We now check our phones an average of 96 times a day – that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020).  Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). The best way to reduce multitasking is to turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts, and social media) and let people know that you will look at the notifications and then respond in a predetermined time, so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying.

When students from San Francisco State University in the United States chose to implement a behavior change to monitor mobile phone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many reported a significant improvement of health and performance. For example one student reported that when she reduced her mobile phone use, her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 1 (Peper et al, 2021).

Figure 1. Example of student changing mobile phone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level. Reproduced by permission from Peper et al. (2021).

During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affected their health and productivity. As one student reported,

The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22-year-old College Student

Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check social media accounts or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two student comments from San Francisco State University.

“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”

“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.” 

Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the material presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentations affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long-term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978Mărchidan, 2019).

To reduce the deleterious impact of media use, China has placed time limits on cellphone use, gaming, and social media use for children. On February 2021 Chinese children were banned from taking their mobile phones into school, on August 2021 Children under 18 were banned from playing video games during the week and their play was restricted to just one hour on Fridays, weekends and holidays, and beginning on September 20, 2021 children under 14 who have been authenticated using their real name can access Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok, for maximum of 40 minutes a day between the hours of 6:00 and 22:00.

Ways to avoid Zoom

Say goodnight to your phone

It is common for people to use their mobile phone before going to bed, and then end up having difficult falling asleep. The screen emits blue light that sends a signal to your brain that says it is daytime instead of night. This causes your body to suppress the production of the melatonin hormone, which tells your body that it is time to sleep. Reading or watching content also contributes, since it stimulates your mind and emotions and thereby promote wakefulness (Bravo, 2020). Implement sleep hygiene and stop using your phone or watching screens 30-minutes before going to bed for a better night’s sleep.

Maintaining a healthy vision

We increase near visual stress and the risk of developing myopia when we predominantly look at nearby surfaces. We do not realize that eyes muscles can only relax when looking at the far distance. For young children, the constant near vision remodels the shape of eye and the child will likely develop near sightedness. The solutions are remarkably simple. Respect your evolutionary background and allow your eyes to spontaneously alternate between looking at near and far objects while being upright (Schneider, 2016Peper, 2021Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

Interrupt sitting disease

We sit for the majority of the day while looking at screens that is a significant risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety (Matthews et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2020). Interrupt sitting by getting up every 30 minutes and do a few stretches. You will tend to feel less sleepy, less discomfort and more productive. As one of our participants reported that when he got up, moved and exercised every 30 minutes at the end of the day he felt less tired.  As he stated, “There is life after five”, which meant he had energy to do other activities after working at the computer the whole day. While working time flies and it is challenging to get up every 30 minutes.  Thus, install a free app on your computer that reminds you to get up and move such as StretchBreak (www.stretchbreak.com).

Use slouching as a cue to change

Posture affects thoughts and emotions as well as, vice versa. When stressed or worried (e.g., school performance, job security, family conflict, undefined symptoms, or financial insecurity), our bodies tend to respond by slightly collapsing and shifting into a protective position. When we collapse/slouch, we are more at risk to:

When stressed, anxious or depressed, it is challenging to change. The negative feelings, thoughts and worries continue to undermine the practice of reframing the experience more positively. Our recent study found that a simple technique, that integrates posture with breathing and reframing, rapidly reduces anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019). When you are captured by helpless defeated thoughts and slouch, use the thought or posture as the trigger to take change.  The moment you are aware of the thoughts or slouched posture, sit up straight, look up, take a slow large diaphragmatic breath and only then think about reframing the problem positively (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019).

When we are upright and look up, we are more likely to:

The challenge is that we are usually unaware we have begun to slouch. A very useful solution is to use a posture feedback device to remind us, such as the UpRight Go (https://www.uprightpose.com/). This simple device and app signals you when you slouch. The device attaches to your neck and connects with blue tooth to your cellphone.  After calibrating, it provides vibrational feedback on your neck each time you slouch. When participants use the vibration feedback to become aware of what is going on and interrupt their slouch by stretching and sitting up, they report a significant decrease in symptoms and an increase in productivity. As one student reported: “Having immediate feedback on my posture helped me to be more aware of my body and helped me to link my posture to my emotions. Before using the tracker, doing this was very difficult for me. It not only helped my posture but my awareness of my mental state as well.”


[1] Adapted from the book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, North Atlantic Press.  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/ 

[2] Correspondence should be addressed to:

Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Healing Studies/Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Holistic Health, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132   COVID-19 mailing address:  2236 Derby Street, Berkeley, CA 94705   Email: epeper@sfsu.edu  web: www.biofeedbackhealth.org  blog: www.peperperspective.com


Rest Rusts: Increase dynamic movement to improve health

In hunting and gathering cultures, alternating movement patterns was part of living and essential for health. This shift from dynamic movement to static or awkward positions is illustrated in Figure 1.  

Figure 1. The shift from dynamic movement to immobility and near vision as illustrated by the Hadzabe men in Tanzania returning from a hunt to our modern immobilized work and pleasure positions (Reproduced by permission from Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

Dynamic movement promotes blood and lymph circulation and reduces static pressures.  At present times our work and leisure activities increase  immobility and static positions as we predominantly have shifted to a sitting immobilized position. This significantly increases musculoskeletal discomfort, cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc. The importance of movement as a factor to enhance health is illustrated in the recent findings of 2110 middle aged participants who were followed up for ten years.  Those who took approximately 7000 steps per day or more experienced significantly lower mortality rates compared with participants taking fewer than 7000 steps per day (Paluch et al., 2021). Just having the head forward while looking at the cellphone significantly increases the forces on the muscles holding the head up as illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The head-forward position puts as much as sixty pounds of pressure on the neck muscles and spine (reproduced by permission from Dr. Kenneth Hansaraj, 2014).

For background and recommendations on what how to reduce static positions, look at our book, TechStress-How technology is hijacking our lives, strategies for coping and pragmatic ergonomics. and the superb article, Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health, published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA, Sept 16, 2021) and reproduced below.

Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health

Our bodies are built for movement – it’s a central part of maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system and the less we move, the more chance we have of developing health issues including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more. However, the negative effects of sedentary work can be mitigated by paying attention to the postures we adopt when we work.

Whether workers are standing or seated while working, maintaining a good ergonomic posture is essential when it comes to preventing MSDs. Poor or awkward postures put unnecessary strain on the musculoskeletal system and, over time, can cause the deterioration of muscle fibres and joints.

Poor or awkward postures include those which involve parts of the body not being in their natural position. More muscular effort is needed to maintain unnatural postures, which increases the energy used by the body and can cause fatigue, discomfort and pain. Unnatural postures also put strain on tendons, ligaments and nerves, which increases the risk of injury. For example, the risk of neck pain increases when the neck is rotated more than 45 degrees for more than 25% of the working day.

These postures, including slouching, rotation of the forearms, or prolonged periods of sitting or standing in the same spot, can cause pain in the lower back and upper limbs. The risk increases when combined with repetitive work, static muscle load, or the need to apply force or reach. And even natural or good postures maintained for any length of time become uncomfortable and eventually painful. Everyone has experienced stiffness after being in the same position for any length of time.

What do we mean by ‘good posture’?

For workers, especially those in sedentary jobs such as office work, factory work or driving, it is important to recognise and adopt good postures. A good posture should be comfortable and allow the joints to be naturally aligned. The segments of our body can be divided into three cross-sectional anatomical planes: the sagittal plane, which concerns bending forwards and backwards; the frontal plane, which concerns bending sideways; and finally the transverse plane, which refers to rotation or twisting of the body parts. A good posture is one that ensures that all three of these planes are set at neutral positions as much as possible, in that the worker is not leaning backwards, forwards or to any particular side, and their limbs and torso are not rotated or twisted. Adopting neutral postures will help to lessen the strain on the worker’s muscles, tendons and skeletal system, and reduces the risk of them causing or aggravating an MSD.

In practice, workers can consider the following checklist to ensure that they’re standing or sitting in a neutral position:

  • Keep the neck vertical and the back in an upright position.
  • Ensure the elbows are below the chest and avoid having to reach excessively.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed and use back and arm rests where possible and ensure that they are adjusted to the size and shape of the worker.
  • Avoid rotating the forearms or excessively moving the wrists.
  • Ensure that any work tools can be held comfortably, and that clothing doesn’t restrain or prevent movement.
  • Allow room to comfortably move the legs and feet and avoid frequent kneeling or squatting.
  • Ensure that long periods of standing or sitting in the same posture can be broken up.

Employers can assist workers in adopting good postures by communicating checklists such as this one, and by promoting physical activity where possible, encouraging the fair rotation of tasks between employees to avoid them consistently making repetitive movements, and ensuring that workers have the capacity to take regular breaks.

Why our next posture is the best posture

However, maintaining a good posture at all times is not enough to reduce the risk of MSDs, and can even be harmful. Static postures, even if ergonomic, are still a risk factor if over-used. Our body requires movement and variety, which is why the best approach is to use a variety of ergonomic postures in rotation, breaking up long periods of static working with stretching, exercise, and movement. This is known as adopting dynamic positions’.

It is important not only for workers who spend much of their day seated, but also for workers who primarily stand – such as factory workers in assembly lines. In both cases, sitting and standing are not opposites. The opposite of both is movement. Changing postures between sitting and standing is not sufficient for any worker – the working environment must still offer ways of varying their postures and incorporating movement into their daily working routines. What’s more, if standing work cannot be avoided, workers do not need lots of space in order to adopt dynamic positions in a healthy way. Blood flow propulsion mechanisms can still work correctly even if the worker is only moving around in one square metre. However it is still the case that they should have a break after 30 minutes of standing.

Work should therefore not only facilitate good postures, but ensure that good, ergonomic postures are also dynamic. Switching between sitting, standing and moving while ensuring that the musculoskeletal frame is not under any unnecessary tension can help sedentary workers avoid the onset of MSDs and other health problems. For more information visit the priority area on sedentary work.

References

EU-OSHA. (September 16, 2021). Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health. https://healthy-workplaces.eu/en/media-centre/news/static-postures-are-harmful-dynamic-postures-work-are-key-musculoskeletal-health?

Hansraj, K. K. (2014).  Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head. Surgical Technology International, 25, 277–79. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25393825/

Paluch, A.E., Gabriel, K.P., Fulton, J.E., et al.(2021). Steps per Day and All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged Adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. JAMA Netw Open, 4(9):e2124516. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24516

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic books. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/ 


Reduce the spread of COVID and influenza by improving building ventilation

Adapted from the superb article by Sarah Zhang, The plan to stop every respiratory virus at once. The Atlantic. (September 7, 2021).

With good clean air circulation, the risk of transmitting or contracting airborne disease such as COVID-19 during air travel is very low (Pombal, Hosegood & Powell, 2020). Pombal, Hosegood & Powell, 2020 point out that modern airplanes maintain clean air by circulating a mix of fresh air and air recycled through HEPA filter. Air enters from overhead air inlets and flows downward toward floor level outlets at the same seat row or nearby rows. There is little airflow forward and backward between rows.

The risk of transmission or contracting airborne dieases is very high if the airplane ventilation system is not working while passengers are in the plane. For example, when a jet airliner with 54 persons aboard was delayed on the ground for three hours with an inoperative ventilation system 72 % of the passengers became ill with symptoms of cough, fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat and myalgia within 72 hours (Moser et al.,1979).

To reduce the risk of COVID and other airborne infections such as influenza, government policies need to implement strategies to reduce exposure to airborne pathogens and optimize the immune system.  By improving ventilation that reduces and removes airborne pathogens, thousands, if not millions, lives will be saved from being infected or dying of COVID or influenza. 

Before the COVID pandemic between 2010 and 2020 an average of 39,900 people a year died of influenza in the United States and during a severe influenza season such as that occurred in 2017-2018, 61,000 people died (CDC, 2021). Influenza, just as COVID, is caused by an airborne pathogens (viruses).  Although wearing masks significantly reduces the airborne spread of the pathogens, the long term preventative solution is to implement indoor ventilation strategies so that the air is not contaminated in the same way that we expect drinking water not to cause illness. From a public health perspective, changing external environment so the virus is cannot spread is a more effective strategy than depending upon individuals’ actions to prevent the spread of the pathogens.

By improving the air filtration and fresh air circulation in rooms and buildings, COVID, influenza virus and other airborne pathogens can be significantly reduced just as that has been done in modern airplanes. This demands changes in building ventilation codes and design.  It means changing the physical infrastructure and upgrading ventilation systems so that only fresh and/or filtered air circulates through the rooms. This infrastructure improvement would be analogous to what occurred in the 19th century in eventually eliminating the cholera epidemics that killed thousands of people a year.

For example in England during the 1831-1832 and 1848 cholera epidemics more than 50,000 people died each year as they became infected with the toxigenic bacterium Vibrio cholerae which was present the water or foods contaminated with feces from a a person infected with cholera bacterium. Approximately 1 in 10 people who get sick with cholera will develop severe symptoms and without treatment, death can occur within hours (CDC, 2021).

In Londong during the 1854 cholera epidemic Dr. John Snow observed that people who got cholera were drawing water from a the same water pump on Broad Street.  He persuaded the authorities to remove the pump handle which eliminated the use of the contaminated water and stopped the spread of the Cholera.  

The water pump in Broadwick Street.

This public health intervention provided some of the rationale in 19th century  to build the infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and appropriate sewage disposal, so that cholera, typhoid as well as other waterborne diseases epidemics would not enter the drinking water supply.

We now need a similar infrastructure improvement to provide clean air in buildings to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants and influenza. How ventilation affects the spread a virus in a class room is illustrated in the outstanding graphical modeling by Nick Bartzokas et al. (February 26, 2021) in the New York Times article, Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools. The spatial guidelines need to be based upon air flow and not on the distance of separation.

In summary, to prevent future airborne illnesses, local, state and federal government need to create and implement ventilation standards so that airborne pathogens are not spread indoors by contaminated air. This is not rocket science! It is a very solvable problem and has been implemented in airplanes. When the air is HEPA filtered so that passengers do not rebreathe each other’s potentially contaminated exhaled air, airborne transmission is very low. Let’s do the same for the air circulating in buildings.

For an indepth analyses, read the superb article, The Plan to Stop Every Respiratory Virus at Once, by Sarah Zhang published September 7, 2021 in the The Atlantic.

For more details to reduce virus exposure and increase immune competence, see the previoius published blogs,

https://peperperspective.com/2020/04/04/can-you-reduce-the-risk-of-coronavirus-exposure-and-optimize-your-immune-system/

https://peperperspective.com/2021/07/05/reduce-your-risk-of-covid-19-variants-and-future-pandemics/

REFERENCES

Bartzokas, N., Gröndahl,  M., Patanjali, K,  Peyton, M.,Saget, B., & Syam, U. (February 26, 2021). Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools. The New York Times. Downloaded March 1, 2021.

CDC (2021). Disease Burden of Influenza. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html

Moser, M.R., Bender, T.R., Margolis, H.S., Noble, G.R., Kendal, A.P., & Ritter, D.G. (1979).  An outbreak of influenza aboard a commercial airliner. Am J Epidemiol, 110(1), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a112781

Pombal, R., Hosegood, I., & Powell, D. (2020).  Risk of COVID-19 During Air Travel. JAMA,  324(17), 1798 https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.19108

Zhang, S. (September 7, 2021). The plan to stop every respiratory virus at once. The Atlantic. Downloaded September 13. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/09/coronavirus-pandemic-ventilation-rethinking-air/620000/


Reduce your risk of COVID-19 variants and future pandemics

Erik Peper, PhD and Richard Harvey, PhD

The number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are decreasing as more people are being vaccinated. At the same time, herd immunity will depend on how vaccinated and unvaccinated people interact with one another. Close-proximity, especially indoor interactions, increases the likelihood of transmission of coronavirus for unvaccinated individuals.  During the summer months, people tend to congregate outdoors which reduces viral transmission and also increases vitamin D production which supports the immune system (Holick, 2021)..

Most likely, COVID-19 disease will become endemic because the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to mutate.  Already Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla stated on April 15, 2021 that  people will “likely” need a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine within 12 months of getting fully vaccinated.  Although, at this moment the vaccines are effective against several variants, we need to be ready for the next COVID XX outbreak. 

To reduce future infections, the focus of interventions should 1) reduce virus exposure, 2) vaccinate to activate the immune system, and 3) enhance the innate immune system competence. The risk of illness may relate to virus density exposure and depend upon the individual’s immune competence (Gandhi & Rutherford, 2020; Mukherjee, 2020) which can be expressed in the following equation.

Reduce viral load (hazardous exposure)

Without exposure to the virus and its many variants, the risk is zero which is impossible to achieve in democratic societies.  People do not live in isolated bubbles but in an interconnected world and the virus does not respect borders or nationalities. Therefore, public health measures need to focus upon strategies that reduce virus exposure by encouraging or mandating wearing masks, keeping social distance, limiting social contact, and increasing fresh air circulation.

Wearing masks reduces the spread of the virus since people may shed viruses one or two days before experiencing symptoms (Lewis et al., 2021). When a person exhales through the mask, a good fitting N95 mask will filter out most of the virus and thereby reduce the spread of the virus during exhalation. To protect oneself from inhaling the virus, the mask needs be totally sealed around the face with the appropriate filters. Systematic observations suggest that many masks such as bandanas or surgical masks do not filter out the virus (Fisher et al., 2020).

Fresh air circulation reduces the virus exposure and is more important than the arbitrary 6 feet separation (CDC, May 13, 2021). If separated by 6 feet in an enclosed space, the viral particles in the air will rapidly increase even when the separation is 10 feet or more. On the other hand, if there is sufficient fresh air circulation, even three feet of separation would not be a problem. The spatial guidelines need to be based upon air flow and not on the distance of separation as illustrated in the outstanding graphical modeling schools by Nick Bartzokas et al. (February 26, 2021) in the New York Times article, Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools.

The public health recommendations of sheltering-in-place to prevent exposure or spreading the  virus may also result in social isolation. Thus, shelter-in-place policies have resulted in compromising physical health such as weight gain (e.g. average increase of more than 7lb in weight  in America according to Lin et al., 2021), reduced physical activity and exercise levels (Flanagan et al., 2021) and increased anxiety and depression (e.g. a three to four fold increase in the self-report of anxiety or depression according to Abbott, 2021).  Increases in weight, depression and anxiety symptoms tend to decrease immune competence (Leonard, 2010). In addition, the stay at home recommendations especially in the winter time meant that individuals  are less exposed to sunlight which results in lower vitamin D levels which is correlated with increased COVID-19 morbidity (Seheult, 2020).

Increase immune competence

Vaccination is the primary public health recommendation to prevent the spread and severity of COVID-19. Through vaccination, the body increases its adaptive capacity and becomes primed to respond very rapidly to virus exposure. Unfortunately, as Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla states, there is “a high possibility” that emerging variants may eventually render the company’s vaccine ineffective (Steenhuysen, 2021). Thus, it is even more important to explore strategies to enhance immune competence independent of the vaccine.

Public Health policies need to focus on intervention strategies and positive health behaviors that optimize the immune system capacity to respond.  The research data has been clear that COVID -19 is more dangerous for those whose immune systems are compromised and have comorbidities such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, regardless of age.  

Comorbidity and being older are the significant risk factors that contribute to COVID-19 deaths. For example, in evaluating all patients in the Fair Health National Private Insurance Claims (FH NPIC’s) longitudinal dataset, researchers identified 467,773 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 from April 1, 2020, through August 31, 2020.  The severity of the illness and death from COVID-19 depended on whether the person had other co-morbidities first as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The distribution of patients with and without a comorbidity among all patients diagnosed with COVID-19 (left) and all deceased COVID-19 patients (right) April-August 2020. Reproduced by permission from: https://www.ajmc.com/view/contributor-links-between-covid-19-comorbidities-mortality-detailed-in-fair-health-study

Each person who died had about 2 or 3 types of pre-existing co-morbidities such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, respiratory disease and cancer (Ssentongo et al., 2020; Gold et al., 2020). The greater the frequency of comorbidities the greater the risk of death, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.  Across all age groups, the risk of COVID-19 death increased significantly as a patient’s number of comorbidities increased. Compared to patients with no comorbidities.  Reproduced by permission from https://s3.amazonaws.com/media2.fairhealth.org/whitepaper/asset/Risk%20Factors%20for%20COVID-19%20Mortality%20among%20Privately%20Insured%20Patients%20-%20A%20Claims%20Data%20Analysis%20-%20A%20FAIR%20Health%20White%20Paper.pdf

Although the risk of serious illness and death is low for young people, the presence of comorbidity increases the risk. Kompaniyets et al. (2021) reported that for patients under 18 years with severe COVID-19 illness who required ICU admission, mechanical ventilation, or died most had underlying medical conditions such as asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders, obesity, essential hypertension or complex chronic diseases such as malignant neoplasms or multiple chronic conditions.

Consistent with earlier findings, the Fair Health National Private Insurance Claims (FH NPIC’s) longitudinal dataset also showed that  the COVID-19 mortality rate rose sharply with age as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3  Percent mortality among COVID-19 patients by age, April-August 2020. Reproduced by permission from: https://s3.amazonaws.com/media2.fairhealth.org/whitepaper/asset/Risk%20Factors%20for%20COVID-19%20Mortality%20among%20Privately%20Insured%20Patients%20-%20A%20Claims%20Data%20Analysis%20-%20A%20FAIR%20Health%20White%20Paper.pdf

Optimize antibody response from vaccinations

Assuming that the immune system reacts similarly to other vaccinations, higher antibody response is evoked when the vaccine is given in the morning versus the afternoon or after exercise (Long et al., 2016; Long et al., 2012).  In addition, the immune response may be attenuated if the person suppresses the body’s natural immune response–the flulike symptoms which may occur after the vaccination–with Acetaminophen (Tylenol (Graham et al, 1990).

Support the immune system with a healthy life style

Support the immune system by implementing a lifestyle that reduces the probability of developing comorbidities.  This means reducing risk factors such as vaping, smoking, immobility and highly processed foods. For example, young people who vape experience a fivefold increase to become seriously sick with COVID-19 (Gaiha, Cheng, & Halpern-Felsher, 2020); similarly, cigarette smoking increases the risk of COVID morbidity and mortality (Haddad, Malhab, & Sacre, 2021).  

There are many factors that have contributed to the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.  In many cases, the environment and lifestyle factors (lack of exercise, excessive intake of highly processed foods, environmental pollution, social isolation, stress, etc.) significantly contribute to the initiation and development of comorbidities. Genetics also is a factor; however, the generic’s risk factor may not be triggered if there are no environmental/behavioral exposures.  Phrasing it colloquially, Genetics loads the gun, environment and behavior pulls the trigger. Reducing harmful lifestyle behaviors and environment is not simply an individual’s responsibility but a corporate and governmental responsibility. At present, harmful lifestyles choices are actively supported by corporate and government policies that choose higher profits over health.  For example, highly processed foods made from corn, wheat, soybeans, rice are grown by farmers with US government farm subsidies. Thus, many people especially of lower economic status live in food deserts where healthy non-processed organic fruits and vegetable foods are much  less available and more expensive (Darmon & Drewnowski, 2008; Michels, Vynckier, Moreno, L.A. et al.  2018; CDC, 2021).   In the CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that analyzed the diet of 10,308 adults, researchers Siegel et al. (2016) found that “Higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks” such as higher levels of obesity and unhealthy blood glucose levels (which raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes).

Immune competence is also affected by many other factors such as  exercise, stress, shift work, social isolation, and reduced micronutrients and Vitamin D (Zimmermann & Curtis, 2019).   Even being sedentary increases the risk of dying from COVID as reported by the Kaiser Permanente Southern California study of 50,000 people who developed COVID (Sallis et al., 2021). 

People who exercised 10 minutes or less each week were hospitalized twice as likely and died 2.5 times more than people who exercised 150 minutes a week (Sallis et al., 2021).  Although exercise tends to enhance immune competence (da Silveira et al, 2020), it is highly likely that exercise is a surrogate marker for other co-morbidities such as obesity and heart disease as well as aging.  At the same time sheltering–in-place along with the increase in digital media has significantly reduced physical activity. 

The importance of vitamin D

Low levels of vitamin D is correlated with poorer prognosis for patients with COVID-19 (Munshi et al., 2021). Kaufman et al. (2020) reported that the positivity rate correlated inversely with vitamin D levels  as shown in figure 4.

Figure 4. SARS-CoV-2 NAAT positivity rates and circulating 25(OH)D levels in the total population.  From: Kaufman, H.W., Niles, J.K., Kroll, M.H., Bi, C., Holick, M.F. (2020). SARS-CoV-2 positivity rates associated with circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. PLoS One. 15(9):e0239252. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239252

Vitamin D is a modulator for the immune system (Baeke, Takiishi, Korf, Gysemans, & Mathieu, 2010).  There is an inverse correlation of all-cause, cardiovascular, cancer, and respiratory disease mortality with hydroxyvitamin D concentrations in a large cohort study (Schöttker et al., 2013). For a superb discussion about how much vitamin D is needed, see the presentation, The D-Lightfully Controversial Vitamin D: Health Benefits from Birth until Death, by Dr. Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D. from the University Medical Center Boston.

Low vitamin D levels may partially explain why in the winter there is an increase in influenza. During winter time, people have reduced sunlight exposure so that their skin does not produce enough vitamin D. Lower levels of vitamin D may be a cofactor in the increased rates of COVID among people of color and older people. The darker the skin, the more sunlight the person needs to produce Vitamin D and as people become older their skin is less efficient in producing vitamin D from sun exposure (Harris, 2006; Gallagher, 2013).  Vitamin D also moderates macrophages by regulating the release, and the over-release of inflammatory factors in the lungs (Khan et al., 2021).

Watch the interesting presentation by Professor Roger Seheult, MD, UC Riverside School of Medicine, Vitamin D and COVID 19: The Evidence for Prevention and Treatment of Coronavirus (SARS CoV 2). 12/20/2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha2mLz-Xdpg

What can be done NOW to enhance immune competence?

We need to recognize that once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, it does not mean it is over.  It is only a reminder that a new COVID-19 variant or another new virus will emerge in the future.  Thus, the government public health policies need to focus on promoting health over profits and aim at strategies to prevent the development of chronic illnesses that affect immune competence. One take away message is to incorporate behavioral medicine prescriptions supporting a healthy lifestyle  into treatment plans, such as prescribing a walk in the sun to increase vitamin D production and develop dietary habits of eating organic locally grown vegetable and fruits foods.  Even just reducing the refined sugar content in foods and drinks is challenging although it may significantly reduce incidence and prevalence of obesity and diabetes (World Health Organization, 2017. The benefits of such an approach has been clearly demonstrated by the Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System’s  Fresh Food Farmacy. This program for food-insecure people with Type 2 diabetes and their families provides enough fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins for two healthy meals a day five days a week. After one year there was a 40 percent decrease in the risk of death or serious complications and an 80 percent drop in medical costs per year (Brody, 2020).

The simple trope of this article ‘eat well, exercise and get good rest’ and increase your immune competence concludes with some simple reminders. 

  • Increase availability of organic foods since they do not contain pesticides such as glyphosate residue that reduce immune competence.
  • Increase vegetable and fruits and reduce highly processed foods, simple carbohydrates and sugars.
  • Decrease sitting and increase movement and exercise
  • Increase sun exposure without getting sunburns
  • Master stress management
  • Increase social support

For additional information see: https://peperperspective.com/2020/04/04/can-you-reduce-the-risk-of-coronavirus-exposure-and-optimize-your-immune-system/

References

Abbott, A. (2021). COVID’s mental-health toll: Scientists track surge in depression. Nature, 590, 19-195.

Bartzokas, N., Gröndahl,  M., Patanjali, K,  Peyton, M.,Saget, B., & Syam, U. (February 26, 2021). Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools. The New York Times. Downloaded March 1, 2021.

Baeke, F., Takiishi, T., Korf,  H., Gysemans, C., & Mathieu, C. (2010). Vitamin D: modulator of the immune system,Current Opinion in Pharmacology,10(4), 482-496. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coph.2010.04.001

Brody, J. (2020). How Poor Diet Contributes to Coronavirus Risk. The New York Times, April 20, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/20/well/eat/coronavirus-diet-metabolic-health.html?referringSource=articleShare

CDC. (2021). Adult Obesity Prevalence Maps. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/prevalence-maps.html#nonhispanic-white-adults

CDC. (May 13, 2021). Ways COVID-19 Spreads. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html

Darmon, N. & Drewnowski, A. (2008). Does social class predict diet quality?, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 2008, 1107–1117. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1107

da Silveira, M. P., da Silva Fagundes, K. K., Bizuti, M. R., Starck, É., Rossi, R. C., & de Resende E Silva, D. T. (2021). Physical exercise as a tool to help the immune system against COVID-19: an integrative review of the current literature. Clinical and experimental medicine21(1), 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10238-020-00650-3

Elflein, J. (2021). COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. as of January 2, 2021, by age.  Downloaded, 1/13/2021 from  https://www.statista.com/statistics/1191568/reported-deaths-from-covid-by-age-us/

Fisher, E. P., Fischer, M.C., Grass, D., Henrion, I., Warren, W.S., & Westmand, E. (2020). Low-cost measurement of face mask efficacy for filtering expelled droplets during speech. Science Advance, (6) 36, eabd3083. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd3083

Flanagan. E.W., Beyl, R.A., Fearnbach, S.N., Altazan, A.D., Martin, C.K., & Redman, L.M. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 Stay-At-Home Orders on Health Behaviors in Adults. Obesity (Silver Spring),  (2), 438-445. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.23066

Gaiha, S.M., Cheng, J., & Halpern-Felsher, B. (2020). Association Between Youth Smoking, Electronic Cigarette Use, and COVID-19. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(4), 519-523. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2020.07.002

Gallagher J. C. (2013). Vitamin D and aging. Endocrinology and metabolism clinics of North America42(2), 319–332. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecl.2013.02.004

Gandhi, M. & Rutherford, G. W. (2020). Facial Masking for Covid-19 — Potential for “Variolation” as We Await a Vaccine.  New England Journal of Medicine, 383(18), e101 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2026913

Gold, M.S., Sehayek, D., Gabrielli, S., Zhang, X., McCusker, C., & Ben-Shoshan, M. (2020). COVID-19 and comorbidities: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Postgrad Med, 132(8), 749-755. https://doi.org/10.1080/00325481.2020.1786964

Graham, N.M., Burrell, C.J., Douglas, R.M., Debelle, P., & Davies, L. (1990).  Adverse effects of aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen on immune function, viral shedding, and clinical status in rhinovirus-infected volunteers. J Infect Dis., 162(6), 1277-82. https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/162.6.1277

Haddad, C., Malhab, S.B., & Sacre, H. (2021). Smoking and COVID-19: A Scoping Review. Tobacco Use Insights, 14, First Published February 15, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1177/1179173X21994612

Harris, S.S. (2006). Vitamin D and African Americans. The Journal of Nutrition, 136(4), 1126-1129. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.4.1126

Kaufman, H.W., Niles, J.K., Kroll, M.H., Bi, C., Holick, M.F. (2020). SARS-CoV-2 positivity rates associated with circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. PLoS One. 15(9):e0239252. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239252

Khan, A. H., Nasir, N., Nasir, N., Maha, Q., & Rehman, R. (2021). Vitamin D and COVID-19: is there a role?. Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40200-021-00775-6

Kompaniyets, L., Agathis, N.T., Nelson, J.M., et al. (2021). Underlying Medical Conditions Associated With Severe COVID-19 Illness Among Children. JAMA Netw Open.  4(6):e2111182. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.11182

Leonard B. E. (2010). The concept of depression as a dysfunction of the immune system. Current immunology reviews6(3), 205–212. https://doi.org/10.2174/157339510791823835

Lewis, N. M., Duca, L. M., Marcenac, P., Dietrich, E. A., Gregory, C. J., Fields, V. L….Kirking, H. L. (2021). Characteristics and Timing of Initial Virus Shedding in Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, Utah, USA. Emerging Infectious Diseases27(2), 352-359. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2702.203517

Lin, A.L., Vittinghoff, E., Olgin, J.E., Pletcher, M.J., & Marcus, G.M. (2021). Body Weight Changes During Pandemic-Related Shelter-in-Place in a Longitudinal Cohort Study. JAMA Netw Open, 4(3):e212536. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.2536

Long, J.E., Drayson, M.T., Taylor, A.E., Toellner, K.M., Lord, J.M., & Phillips, A.C. (2016).  Morning vaccination enhances antibody response over afternoon vaccination: A cluster-randomised trial. Vaccine, 34(24), 2679-85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2016.04.032.

Long. J.E., Ring, C., Drayson, M., Bosch, J., Campbell, J.P., Bhabra, J., Browne, D., Dawson, J., Harding, S., Lau, J., & Burns, V.E. (2012). Vaccination response following aerobic exercise: can a brisk walk enhance antibody response to pneumococcal and influenza vaccinations? Brain Behav Immun., 26(4), 680-687.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2012.02.004

Merelli, A. (2021, February 2). Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is set to be one of the most lucrative drugs in the world. QUARTZ. https://qz.com/1967638/pfizer-will-make-15-billion-from-covid-19-vaccine-sales/

Michels, N., Vynckier, L., Moreno, L.A. et al. (2018). Mediation of psychosocial determinants in the relation between socio-economic status and adolescents’ diet quality. Eur J Nutr, 57, 951–963. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-017-1380-8

Mukherjee, S. (2020). How does the coronavirus behave inside a patient? We’ve counted the viral spread across peoples; now we need to count it within people. The New Yorker, April 6, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/06/how-does-the-coronavirus-behave-inside-a-patient?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker

Munshi, R., Hussein, M.H., Toraih, E.A., Elshazli, R.M., Jardak, C., Sultana, N., Youssef, M.R., Omar, M., Attia, A.S., Fawzy, M.S., Killackey, M., Kandil, E., & Duchesne, J. (2020) Vitamin D insufficiency as a potential culprit in critical COVID-19 patients. J Med Virol, 93(2), 733-740. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.26360

Renoud. L, Khouri, C., Revol, B., et al. (2021) Association of Facial Paralysis With mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines: A Disproportionality Analysis Using the World Health Organization Pharmacovigilance Database. JAMA Intern Med. Published online April 27, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2021.2219

Sallis, R., Young, D. R., Tartof, S.Y., et al. (2021). Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48 440 adult patients. British Journal of Sports Medicine.  Published Online First: 13 April 2021http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2021-104080

Schöttker, B., Haug, U., Schomburg, L., Köhrle, L., Perna, L., Müller. H., Holleczek, B., & Brenner. H. (2013). Strong associations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels with all-cause, cardiovascular, cancer and respiratory disease mortality in a large cohort study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97(4), 782–793 2013; https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.047712

Siegel, K.R., McKeever Bullard, K., Imperatore. G., et al. (2016). Association of Higher Consumption of Foods Derived From Subsidized Commodities With Adverse Cardiometabolic Risk Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 176(8), 1124–1132. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.2410

Ssentongo P, Ssentongo AE, Heilbrunn ES, Ba DM, Chinchilli VM (2020) Association of cardiovascular disease and 10 other pre-existing comorbidities with COVID-19 mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 15(8): e0238215. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0238215

Steenhuysen, J. 2021, Jan 30). Fresh data show toll South African virus variant takes on vaccine efficacy. Accessed January 31, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-vaccines-variant/fresh-data-show-toll-south-african-virus-variant-takes-on-vaccine-efficacy-idUSKBN29Z0I7

World Health Organization. (2017). Sugary drinks1 – a major contributor to obesity and diabetes. WHO/NMH/PND/16.5 Rev. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/260253/WHO-NMH-PND-16.5Rev.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1

Zimmermann, P. & Curtis, N. (2019). Factors That Influence the Immune Response to Vaccination. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 32(2), 1-50.  https://doi.org/10.1128/CMR.00084-18


Useful resources about breathing, phytonutrients and exercise

Dysfunctional breathing, eating highly processed foods, and lack of movement contribute to development of illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many chronic diseases.  They also contributes to immune dysregulation that increases vulnerability to infectious diseases, allergies and autoimmune diseases. If you wonder what breathing patterns optimize health, what foods have the appropriate phytonutrients to support your immune system, or what the evidence is that exercise reduces illness and promotes longevity, look at the following resources.

Breath: the mind-body connector that underlies health and illness

Read the outstanding article by Martin Petrus (2021). How to breathe.

https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-breathe-your-way-to-better-health-and-transcendence

You are the food you eat

Watch the superb webinar presentation by Deanna Minich, MS., PHD., FACN, CNS, (2021) Phytonutrient Support for a Healthy Immune System.

Movement is life

Explore the summaries of recent research that has demonstrated the importance of exercise to increase healthcare saving and reduce hospitalization and death.


Reactivate your second heart

Monica Almendras and Erik Peper

Have you ever wondered why after driving long distances or sitting in a plane for hours your feet and lower leg are slightly swollen (Hitosugi, Niwa, & Takatsu, 2000)? It is the same process by which soldiers standing in attention sometimes faint or why salespeople or cashiers, especially those who predominantly stand most of the day, have higher risk of developing varicose veins.  By the end of the day, they feel that their legs being heavy and tired?  In the vertical position, gravity is the constant downward force that pools venous blood and lymph fluid in the legs. The pooling of the blood and reduced circulation is a contributing factor why airplane flights of four or more hours increases the risk for developing blood clots-deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Scurr, 2002; Kuipers et al., 2007).  When blood clots reaches the lung, they can cause a pulmonary embolisms that can be fatal. In other cases, they may even travel to the brain and cause strokes.[1]  

Sitting without moving the leg muscles puts additional stress on your heart, as the blood and lymph pools in the legs. Tightening and relaxing the calf muscles can prevent the pooling of the blood.  The inactivity of your calf muscles does not allow the blood to flow upwards. The episodic contractions of the calf muscles squeezes the veins and pumps the venous blood upward towards the heart as illustrated in figure 1.  Therefore, it is important to stand, move, and walk so that your calf muscle can act as a second heart (Prevosti, April 16, 2020). 

Figure 1. Your calf muscles are your second heart! The body is engineered so that when you walk, the calf muscles pump venous blood back toward your heart. Reproduced by permission from Dr. Louis Prevosti of the Center for Vein Restoration (https://veinatlanta.com/your-second-heart/).

To see the second heart in action watch the YouTube video, Medical Animation Movie on Venous Disorders, by the Sigvaris Group Europe (2017).

If you stand too long and experienced slight swelling of the legs, raise your feet slightly higher than the head, to help drain the fluids out of the legs.  Another way to reduce pooling of fluids  and prevent blood clots and edema is to wear elastic stockings or wrap the legs with intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) devices that periodically compresses the leg (Zhao et al., 2014). You can also do this by performing foot rotations or other leg and feet exercises. The more the muscle of the legs and feet contract and relax, the more are the veins episodically compressed which increases venous blood return.  Yet in our quest for efficiency and working in front of screens, we tend to sit for long time-periods.

Developing sitting disease

Have you noticed how much of the time you sit during the day? We sit while studying, working, socializing and entertaining in front of screens. This sedentary behavior has significantly increased during the pandemic (Zheng et al, 2010). Today, we do not need to get up because we call on Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google’s Hey Google to control timers, answer queries, turn on the lights, fan, TV, and other home devices. Everything is at our fingertips and we have finally become The Jetsons without the flying cars (an American animated sitcom aired in the 1960s). There is no need to get up from our seat to do an activity. Everything can be controlled from the palm of our hand with a mobile phone app. 

With the pandemic, our activities involve sitting down with minimum or no movement at all. We freeze our body’s position in a scrunch–a turtle position–and then we wonder why we get neck, shoulder, and back pains–a process also observed in young adults or children. Instead of going outside to play, young people sit in front of screens. The more we sit and watch screens, the poorer is our mental and physical health (Smith et al., 2020Matthews et al., 2012). We are meant to move instead of sitting in a single position for eight or more hours while fixating our attention on a screen.

The visual stimuli on screen captures our attention, whether it is data entry, email, social media, or streaming videos (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).  While at the computer, we often hold up our index finger on the mouse and wait with baited breath to react.  Holding this position and waiting to click may look harmless; however, our right shoulder is  often elevated and raised upward towards our ear. This bracing pattern is covert and contributes to the development of discomfort. The moment your muscles tighten, the blood flow through the muscle is reduced (Peper, Harvey, & Tylova, 2006). Muscles are most efficient when they alternately tighten and relax. It is no wonder that our body starts to scream for help when feeling pain or discomfort on our neck, shoulders, back and eyes.

Why move?

Figure 2a and 2b Move instead of sit (photos source: Canva.com).

The importance of tightening and then relaxing muscles is illustrated during walking.  During the swing phase of walking, the hip flexor muscles relax, tighten, relax again, tighten again, and this is repeated until the destination is reached. It is important to relax the muscles episodically for blood flow to bring nutrients to the tissue and remove the waste product.  Most people can walk for hours; however, they can only lift their foot from the floor (raise their leg up for a few minutes) till discomfort occurs. 

Movement is what we need to do and play is a great way to do it. Dr. Joan Vernikos (2016) who conducted seminal studies in space medicine and inactivity physiology investigated why astronauts rapidly aged in space and lost muscle mass, bone density and developed a compromised immune system. As we get older, we are hooked on sitting, and this includes the weekends too. If you are wondering how to separate from your seat, there are ways to overcome this. In the research to prevent the deterioration caused by simulating the low gravity experience of astronauts, Dr. Joan Vernikos (2021) had earthbound volunteers lie down with the head slightly lower than the feet on a titled bed. She found that standing up from lying down every 30-minutes was enough to prevent the deterioration of inactivity, standing every hour was not enough to reverse the degeneration.  Standing stimulated the baroreceptors in the neck and activated a cardiovascular response for optimal health (Vernikos, 2021).

We have forgotten something from our evolutionary background and childhood, which is to play and move around.  When children move around, wiggle, and contort themselves in different positions, they maintain and increase their flexibility. Children can jump and move their arms up, down, side to side, forward, and backward. They do this every day, including the weekends.

When was the last time you played with a child or like a child? As an adult, we might feel tired to play with a child and it can be exhausting after staring at the screen all day. Instead of thinking of being tired to play with your child, consider it as a good workout. Then you and your child bond and hopefully they will also be ready for a nap. For you, not only do you move around and wake up those muscles that have not worked all day, you also relax the tight muscles, stretch and move your joints. Do playful activities that causes the body to move in unpredictable fun ways such as throwing a ball or roleplaying being a different animal. It will make both of you smile–smiling helps relaxation and rejuvenates your energy.

It is not how much exercise you do, it is how long you sit.  The longer you sit without activating your second heart the more are you at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes independent of how much exercise you do (Bailey et al., 2019).

Use it or lose it! Activate your calves!

  • Interrupt sitting at your desk/computer every 30-minutes by getting up and walking around.
  • Stand up and walk around when using your phone.
  • Organize walking meetings instead of sitting around a table.
  • Invest in a sit-stand desk while working at the computer.  While working, alternate positions. There should be a balance between standing and sitting, because too much of one can lead to problems. By taking a short standing up break to let your blood pump back to the heart is beneficial to avoid health problems. Exercise alone, a fancy new ergonomic chair or expensive equipment is not enough to be healthy, it is important to add those mini breaks in between (Buckley et al, 2015).

For a holistic perspective to stay healthy while working with computers and cellphones, see the comprehensive book by Peper, Harvey and Faass (2020), TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics.

References

Bailey, D.P., Hewson, D.J., Champion, R.B., & Sayegh, S.M. (2019). Sitting Time and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 57(3), 408-416.

Buckley, J.P., Hedge, A., Yates, T., et al. (2015). The sedentary office: an expert statement on the growing case for change towards better health and productivity British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49, 1357-1362.

Hitosugi, M., Niwa, M., & Takatsu, A. (2000). Rheologic changes in venous blood during prolonged sitting. Thromb Res.,100(5), 409–412.

Kuipers, S., Cannegieter, S.C., Middeldorp, S., Robyn, L., Büller, H.R., & Rosendaal, F.R. (2007) The Absolute Risk of Venous Thrombosis after Air Travel: A Cohort Study of 8,755 Employees of International Organisations, PLoS Med 4(9): e290.

Mahase, E. (2021). Covid-19: Unusual blood clots are “very rare side effect” of Janssen vaccine, says EMA. BMJ: 373:n1046. 

Matthews, C.E., George, S.M., Moore, S.C., et al. (2012). Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors and cause-specific mortality in US adults. Am J Clin Nutr, 95(2), 437-445. 

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Tylova, H. (2006). Stress protocol for assessing computer related disorders.  Biofeedback. 34(2), 57-62.

Prevosti, L. (2020, April 16). Your second heart. https://veinatlanta.com/your-second-heart/

Scurr, J.H. (2002). Travellers’ thrombosis. Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 122(1):11-13.

SIGVARIS GROUP Europe. (2017). Medical Animation Movie on Venous Disorders / SIGVARIS GROUP. [Video]. YouTube.

Smith, L., Jacob, L., Trott, M., Yakkundi, A., Butler, L., Barnett, Y., Armstrong, N. C., McDermott, D., Schuch, F., Meyer, J., López-Bueno, R., Sánchez, G., Bradley, D., & Tully, M. A. (2020). The association between screen time and mental health during COVID-19: A cross sectional study. Psychiatry research292, 113333.

Vernikos, J. (2016). Designed to Move: The Science-Backed Program to Fight Sitting Disease and Enjoy Lifelong Health.  Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books.

Vernikos, J. (2021, February 25). Much ado about standing. Virtual Ergonomic Summit. American Posture Institute. https://api.americanpostureinstitute.com/virtual-ergonomics-summit-free-ticket?r_done=1

Zhao, J.M., He, M.L., Xiao,  Z.M., Li,  T.S., Wu,  H., & Jiang,  H. (2014).  Different types of intermittent pneumatic compression devices for preventing venous thromboembolism in patients after total hip replacement. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 12. Art. No.: CD009543.

Zheng, C., Huang, W.Y., Sheridan, S., Sit, C.H.-P., Chen, X.-K., Wong, S.H.-S. (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic Brings a Sedentary Lifestyle in Young Adults: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 17, 6035.


[1] We even wonder if excessive sitting during the COVID-19 pandemic is a hidden risk factor of the rare negative side effects of blood clots in the brain, that can occur with the  AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson coronavirus vaccine (Mahase, 2021).


Why did the CDC mishandle the COVID-19 pandemic response?

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) located in Atlanta, George, with a stellar international reputation responded too late and incompetently to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.  Although many people blame the Trump administration for the failed response, a significant factor was the risk adverse and politicized CDC.. To understand what actually happened, listen to the superb New York Times podcast with Michael Lewis and read his just published book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.  The interview and his book should be the first requirement for anyone interested in Public Health careers, government service and public policy.

Listen to the New York Times book review podcast interview: and read the book.


Nutrition to support the Stress Response

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food

-Hippocrates, the Greek physician and father of medicine.

What should I eat? More greens, more Vitamin D, more fish, no meats, no grains, or should I become a vegetarian, go on a ketogenic diet, or evolutionary diet? There are so many options. What are the best choices?

The foods we eat provide the building blocks and energy source for our body. If you eat high quality foods, the body has the opportunity to create and maintain a healthy strong structure; on the other hand, if you eat low quality foods, it is more challenging to create and maintain a healthy body. The analogy is building a house.  If the materials are high quality, the structure well engineered and well built, the house has the opportunity to age well.  On the other hand, if the house is built out of inferior materials and poorly engineered, it is easily damaged by wind, rain or even earthquakes.

Although we are bombarded with recommendations for healthy eating, many of the recommendations are not based upon science but shaped by the lobbying and advertisement efforts of agribusiness. For example, the scientific recommendations to reduce sugar in our diet were not implements in the government guidelines. This demonstrates the power of lobbying which places profits over health.

Officials at the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services rejected explicit caps on sugar and alcohol consumption. Although “the preponderance of evidence supports limiting intakes of added sugars and alcoholic beverages to promote health and prevent disease.” (Rabin, 2020). 

To make sense out of the multitude of nutritional recommendations, watch the superb presentation by Dr. Marisa Soski, ND, Nutrition to Support Stress Response.* She discusses how and what we eat has direct impact on how our bodies manage our reactions to stress.

*Presented April 16, 2021 at the Holistic Health Series on Fridays: Optimize Health and Well-Being Lecture Series. The series is sponsored by the Institute for Holistic Health Studies and Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism, San Francisco State University.    

Reference

Rabin, R.C. (2020). U.S. Diet Guidelines Sidestep Scientific Advice to Cut Sugar and Alcohol. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/29/health/dietary-guidelines-alcohol-sugar.html


Configure your brain to learn and avoid Zoom fatigue [1]

Adapted from: Peper, E., Wilson, V., Martin, M., Rosegard, E., & Harvey, R. (2021). Avoid Zoom fatigue, be present and learn. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 47–56. https://doi.org/10.15540/nr.8.1.47

After a while, it all seems the same.  Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing.  The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.

Overnight, the pandemic transformed college teaching from in-person to online education. Zoom[2] became the preferred academic teaching and learning platform for synchronous education. Students and faculty now sat and looked at the screen for hours. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from smartphones, social media and email, which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019).  The digital distractions causing people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention—a process labeled ‘semi-tasking’- meaning getting twice as much done half as well.

For many students synchronous online learning was more challenging, especially after teaching was shifted to a Zoom environment without adapting the course materials to optimize online learning. During polling of 325 undergraduate university students at a metropolitan university who were all taking synchronous online Zoom classes, the vast majority reported that learning was somewhat to extremely difficult, with only the minority of students (approximately 6%) preferring online learning as shown in Figure 1. 

Figure 1.  Survey of 325 Undergraduates comparing Zoom online learning compared to the previous in person classes. Approximately 94% had moderate to considerable difficulty with on line learning.

The increased self-report on difficulty experienced in synchronous Zoom online learning may also affect academic achievement.  At the same time, many people have reported an increase in physical, behavioral and psycho-emotional problems  (e.g. backache, headache, stomachache, eye-strain, sore neck and shoulder pain, over or under eating, over or under sleeping, over or under exercising, ruminative thoughts related to categories of anxiety/fear, boredom/numbness, depression/sadness, anger/hostility, etc) (Fosslien & Duffy, 2020; Lee, 2020; Intolo, 2019; Leeb et al, 2020; McGinty et al, 2020; Peper & Harvey, 2018; Peper, Harvey and Faas, 2020). 

This post explores factors that contribute to zoom fatigue and offers practical suggestions to optimize learning during synchronous Zoom online education. The concepts are derived from our teaching athletes to sustain peak mental and physical performance, with the implication that the same concepts can help students towards sustaining on-topic attention during online learning (Wilson & Peper, 2011). In sports, the coach can help guide the athlete; however, the athlete needs to be present and motivated.  Faculty have a responsibility to support, encourage, and engage students while students have the responsibility to configure themselves into an optimum learning state.

Part 1: Factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue

Differences in communication between live and computer communication

Until the 20th century, almost all communication included non-verbal expressions. The speaker used verbal and nonverbal expressions while the respondent would immediately show a reaction to the speaker.  There was a continuous dynamic verbal and nonverbal exchange. The listener would respond to the speaker. If they agreed they nodded their head.  If they disagreed or were intimidated they would provide alternative body movements (e.g., shake their head) or facial expressions (look away or frown).  During normal conversations, both the speaker’s facial expression and body language are noticed and responded to, which are in turn, can be used as feedback by the other person. In large group sessions with many participants, the visual feedback is reduced and facial responses are difficult to distinguish especially the gallery view. 

In a Zoom environment, both the sender and receiver are watching the computer screen without awareness that nonverbal cues are essential for the purpose of understanding not only what is being said but also for the implied meaning and its importance. These non-verbal cues are usually processed without awareness in live person-to-person exchange. While sending and receiving are usually simultaneous, there can exist a disconnect between the attached meanings of the encoded information and that of the decoded information due to the inconsistent existence of important nonverbal components.  In a Zoom environment, the end-result could mean multiple images of receivers providing the sender with little or no non-verbal cues with which to interpret the meaning they have attached to your message.  The person may appear to look at you; however, you do not know whether they are attending to you, have a neurological disorder and cannot respond, are reading their emails, watching YouTube videos, or texting on their phone. Additionally, the nonverbal cues they are sending may not be related to your message but to their reaction to other media, people or distractions not seen by the presenter. 

This mode of communication is different from communication patterns that evolved through natural selection and allowed the human species to thrive and survive. For the first time in human history we learn, teach, work, socialize, and entertain in front of the same screen.  In many cases, communication in the era of smartphones has been reduced to texting, writing digital responses or reacting to media content on any screen.  Over the past few decades, it is possible for people to communicate through more disembodied, off-topic and external modes of interaction. So many types of learning activities vie for our attention and can occur without leaving our chairs, thus, it may be difficult to stay on-topic online Zoom classes (Keller, Davidesco, & Tanner, 2020).

Normal communication typically involves whole body movements (face, head, arms and hands) which tends to energize or sometimes distract the speaker or listener (Kendon, 2004). When communicating with friends-we often move our bodies dynamically and responsively during the discussion.  With synchronous large online lectures, students tend to be passive and just sit and watch.[3] This state of sitting and just watching the screen is similar to watching video entertainment where we sit for a long time and are covertly conditioned not to act. 

Unknowingly, we have trained ourselves not to initiate action since the screen does not provide feedback to our responses- a process so different from talking and responding spontaneously in groups of participants.

When communication is safe, people interact, respond and chime in.  In large groups, just like large lectures, Zoom tends to inhibit this process because it delays social feedback since most people mute their microphone to avoid extraneous noise. This is usually the rule for large groups although for small groups, people often unmute themselves. The physical act of unmuting is an additional barrier to spontaneous verbal responses. This shift of attention induces a delay before responding.  From a communication perspective, a delay before responding reduces the spontaneity and is may be interpreted more negatively by the listener (Roberts, Margutti, & Takano, 2011).

Facial Expressions and Auditory Processing

Facial expressions are a critical part of non- verbal feedback and signals to the other person that they are being listened to and provide cues that the interaction is safe.  We unknowingly react to facial expressions–processed unconsciously through neuroception (Porges, 2017)–to indicate whether the person is signaling safety or danger.  Usually when the person is facially responsive and shows expression, it signals safety and allows communication and intimacy to be developed. If the person shows no facial expressions (a still/flat face), we unconsciously interpret this as a signal of danger (Porges, 2017). The importance of responsive feedback is illustrated in the study by Tronick et al (1975) where mothers were instructed not to respond with facial and body cues to their infant. The babies rapidly became highly disturbed when the mother stayed nonresponsive as dramatically illustrated in the YouTube video, Still Face Experiment: Dr. Edward Tronick (Tronick, 2007).  In adults lack of verbal and nonverbal feedback during social evaluations is extremely stressful (Gruenewald, Kemeny, Aziz, & Fahey, 2004; Birkett, 2011).

The absence of social facial and body feedback often makes teaching and learning more challenging.  Namely, are the receivers–the invisible, (only their picture or name is shown), partially visible (facial features are indistinct due to backlighting) or ghosting (those whose picture and name are shown but are physically absent from the session)–understanding the information the way the sender intended? 

Unlike traditional classroom settings where one has the benefit of seeing/sensing nonverbal cues, the Zoom gallery view often, the speaker may not know what how the audience is responding and this contributes to Zoom fatigue. In addition, the communication bond is often reduced when the speaker does not look at audience and the listener does not respond to the speaker with facial expressions.  Zoom fatigue can also be reduced when online teaching tools are used appropriately by involving active feedback responses through polls, chat, etc. as well as asking specific participants to speak and give feedback.

What is unique to the synchronous online environment is that the speakers and participants view themselves. This is the first time in human history that people are seeing themselves while speaking[4].   For some people, seeing themselves may increase anxiety and negative self-judgement- a process that is even more prevalent in teens.  Some are self-conscious and some have social anxiety and do not want their face to be shown (Degges-White, 2020).  In the past, most of us had no idea how we looked when others or ourselves are communicating—it is totally novel experience to see yourself while talking and communicating.

Reduced physical activity and increased near vision stress.

 Before sheltering in place, I would walk from my house to the BART station, take the train to Daly City station and then walk to the university.  At the university, I would climb stairs to go to my office, meet with other faculty and walk to the classroom.  At the end of the day, I would walk back to the Bart station and eventually walk home. Without any thinking or trying to do any exercise, I usually would do 12,000 steps and about 25 stairs.  Now, I am lucky if I do 3000 unless will myself to do more exercise.  –Erik Peper

The move to a Zoom environment and sheltering in place meant that we sit more and more which tends to increase mortality, decrease subjective energy and contributes to an attitude of passive engagement, more as an observer than as a participant (Stamtakis et al, 2019; Patel et al, 2018; Oswald et. al., 2020; Yalçin, Özkurt, Özmaden & Yagmur, 2020). While sitting, we also tend to slouch as we look at the screen that may be a covert factor in the increasing rates of depression and anxiety. 

This slouching position tends to decrease access to positive memories and allow easier access to negative memories (Peper et al, 2017) as well as interfere with academic performance.  Peper et al (2018) found that students have more difficulty performing mental math in the slouched as compared to upright sitting position. To reduce the impact of sitting, Peper & Lin (2012) found that when student perform some physical activities (e.g., skipping in place) for just a minute they report a significantly increase subjective energy and attention levels.

When looking at the screen our eyes only focus on the screen, which is different from in-person communication where you look at the person and then look at behind or to the side of the person. Only looking at the screen means that to focus on the screen the muscles of the eyes tighten so that the eyes can converge and the ciliary muscles around the lens contract so that the lens curvature is increased which results in near visual stress. This continuous looking at a near object is different from normal eye function in which we alternately focus on nearby objects and then look far away which allows the muscles of the eyes to relax.

Student Issues

Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check Instagram, facebook, TikTok, or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two students’ comments.

“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”

“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.” 

Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the materials presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentation affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978; Mărchidan, 2019). Learning requires engagement, which means a shifting from passively watching and listening to being an active, participant shareholder in synchronous online classes.  However, in most cases, students have not received information/education or training on HOW TO be a more active/engaged participant in a synchronous Zoom class.

Instructor Issues

Instructors also have many of the same issues when presenting classes online. They engage in multiple simultaneous roles: presenter, director, and producer.  While teaching, they need to engage students, monitor the chat for feedback and look at the screen for facial responses.  At the same time, they may face similar technical issues as those experienced by students such as internet connectivity, limited bandwidth, and mastering the technical features of synchronous online learning technology.  At times, instructors feel that students expect each presentation to be as captivating as a TED talk.  Thus, teaching has shifted from education to edutainment

Part 2: Practical suggestions to optimize learning

To optimize learning in the synchronous online environment, teachers have the responsibility to reconfigure their teaching so that it incorporates active student involvement and students have the responsibility to be present and engaged. The following practices may facilitate learning:

Be present to learn

Mastering media presence is becoming even more important for everyone. The skill implemented in attending an online learning class will also be useful for professional development.  Although the pandemic shifted personal interviews to online interviews, most likely, synchronous and asynchronous video interviews are part of the first automatic screening level to assess candidates for a job (Rubinstein, 2020).

Be visible for the other person looking at you to create a positive impression

Adjust your camera and lights so that your face is visible and you are looking at the person to whom you are talking. Your screen presence is representing you.  Does the camera show you engaged or distracted lying on bed?  Be aware that you and your background together create an impression. The concept that looking directly at the audience– looking directly at the camera–is not new. Everyone working in media (newscasters, politicians, actors) have been trained to make their faces visible and expressive.  This means arranging your webcam at eye level right in front of you and speaking to the camera as if it is the person.  Avoid looking down at the person on the screen since the viewer would see you looking look down and away. Be sure your face is illuminated and there are no bright light sources behind you (Purdy, 2020).  We recommend that in small group, participants unmute their microphones so that people can respond spontaneously to each other unless there is excessive background noise.

Be a responsive and interactive listener to configure your brain to be engaged

Shift from being a passive absorber to an active participant even if your camera is off or the speaker cannot see you. Imagine being physically with the speaker and activate yourself by increasing your face and body animation as you are attending a synchronous online class.  Thus, when you watch a presentation, act as if you are in a personal conversation with the presenter or the material. This means that if you agree, nod your head; if you disagree, shake your head (do this naturally without making it a work task). Do this for the whole session.  Our research has shown that when college students purposely implement animated facial and body responses during Zoom classes, they report a significant increase in energy level, attention and involvement as compared to just attending normally in class (Peper & Yang, in press). See Figure 2.

Figure 2.  Change in subjective energy, attention and involvement when the students significantly increase their facial and body animation by 123 % as compared to their normal non-expressive class behavior (Peper & Yang, 2021).

  “I never realized how my expressions affected my attention. Class was much more fun”

-22 year old woman student.

“I can see how paying attention and participation play a large role in learning material. After trying to give positive facial and body feedback I felt more focused and I was taking better notes and felt I was understanding the material a bit better.”-28 year old medical student

Configure your body to attend and perform

Sit upright and adapt a position of empowerment. When we sit upright and expanded it is easier to have positive thoughts and detach from negative hopeless thoughts (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018). Students also performed better in mental math when they sat upright as compared to collapsed. When students are provided ongoing feedback when they begin to slouch by an app that uses the computer camera to monitor slouching, they reported a significant decrease in neck and back symptoms (Chetwynd et al, 2020). As one of many students reported:

“Before when I didn’t use the app, I had a lots of shoulder and neck pain. Now when I use it, the pain went way down as I kept changing posture to the feedback signal. I had more energy and I was more alert. I did notice that when I would get the alert to sit up straight.”

Optimize concentration and learning

In the online environment, the structure more likely depends upon the person unlike the externally created structure of going to work or to class. Thus, purposely creating a time structure and scheduled time-periods to perform different tasks as time management skills are associated with improved school and work performance (Macan et al., 1990).  Create an environment to promote concentration and reduce distractions.

  • Stay on task and reduce interruption and practice refocusing on task. On the average we now check our phones 96 times a day—that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020). Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). When working or attending a class or meeting, turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts and social media). Then block out specific times when you work on Zoom and when you respond to email, phone or social media (Newport, 2016). Let people know that you will look at the notifications and respond in a predetermined time so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying.  If you work where there are other people, arrange your workstation so that there are fewer distractions such as sitting with your back to other people. When students chose to implement a behavior change to monitor cellphone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many report a significant improvement of health and performance.  One student observed that when she reduced her cellphone use her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 3.

Figure 3. Example of a student changing cellphone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level.

During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affect their health and productivity. As one student reported,

The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22 year old College Student

  • Approached learning with a question. When you begin to study the material or attend a class, ask yourself questions that you would like to be answered. If possible, put your questions to the instructor. When you have a purpose, it is easier to stay emotionally present and remember the material (Osman, & Hannafin, 1994).
  • Take written notes while attending a Zoom meeting or class.  When participants take hand written notes versus on the computer they tend to integrate and remember the material much more than just watching passively (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Active note taking leads to focused attention and fewer distractions from social media content (Flanigan & Titsworth, 2020).
  • Review materials. At the end of the class, meet with your fellow students on ZOOM or social media and review the class materials.  As you discuss the materials, add comments to your notes and if possible, do a hierarchical outline to more easily remember the relationships among the ideas. 
  • Change your internal language. What we overtly or covertly say and believe is what we may become. When one says, “I am stupid”, “I can’t do math,” or “It is too difficult to learn,” one may become powerless which increases stress and inhibits cognitive function.  Instead, change the internal language so that it implies that you can master the materials such as, “I need more time to study and to practice the material,”  “Learning just takes time and at this moment it may take a bit longer than for someone else,” or “I need a better tutor.” 

Create an environment to trigger the appropriate mental and emotional state for learning.

Learning and recall are state dependent.  Without awareness, the learned content is covertly associated with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues.  Thus, when you study in bed, the material is more easily accessed while lying down. When you study with music, the music becomes a retrieval cue.  Without awareness, the materials are encoded with the cues of lying down or the music played in the background.  When you take your exam in a different setting then you have studied, none of the covert cues are there, thus, it is more difficult to recall the material. Study and review the materials under similar conditions, as you will be tested. 

To configure yourself to be ready to study, work, or socialize create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining). Pre COVID, we usually used different clothing for different events (work versus party) or different environments for different tasks (temple, churches, mosques, or synagogue for religious practice; bar or coffee shop to meet friends). Create a unique environment with each Zoom activity. The stimuli to be associated to the specific tasks can also include lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate by pairing a sound with the meat.  Taking charge of the conditioning process may help many people to focus on their task as so many students use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work which is not always conducive for learning or work.

  • Wear task specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school.  When you plan to study, put on your study T-shirt. In time, the moment you put on the study T-shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying. When finishing with studying, change your clothing.
  • Arrange task specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom task. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen-one for studying and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background. 

Optimize arousal and regenerate vision

  • The longer we sit the more passive we tend to become. Teachers will benefit by interrupting the passive transfer of information by guiding students in fun short movements to increase arousal.  If instructors fail to put in movement breaks, students sitting in front of screens can remind themselves to move. The challenge is that we are usually unaware of how much time has passed as we are captured by the screen.  It is often helpful to use an app such as StretchBreak[5] to remind yourself to get up and move.
  • Get up and move every 30 minutes. After sitting for 30 minutes stretch, wiggle and move.  Do the movements with vigor or even dance, look up and reach up.  When you stand up and move your legs and feet, you tighten and relax your calf muscles that pump the venous blood and lymph fluids that have been pooling in your legs back to your heart. The calf muscle is often called the second heart because in facilitates venous blood return.
  • Regenerate vision. Our eyes tend to get tired and world looks blurry.  Interrupt the near vision stress by allowing the eyes to relax and regenerate.
  • Palming.  Bring your hands to your face and cup the hands so that there is no pressure on your eyeballs. Allow the base of the hands to touch the cheeks while the fingers are interlaced and resting your forehead. Then with your eyes closed imagine seeing black. Breathe slowly and diaphragmatically while feeling the warmth of the palm soothing the eyes. Feel your shoulders, head and eyes relaxing and do this for five minutes (Schneider, 2016; Peper, 2021).
  • Look at the distance.  Interrupt near visual stress (convergence of the eyes and tightening of the ciliary muscle around the lens allows us to focus on the screen) by looking away at the far distance.  Every so look at the clouds, top of trees or rooftops outside the window to relax the eyes.

Summary

By activating the evolutionary communication patterns that allowed us to survive and thrive and using known performance enhancement skills derived from peak performance training, we can enhance involvement and productivity. The instructor needs to stay current on methods that keep students attention. At the same time, students have a responsibility to configure themselves to optimize learning.   We recommend practices 1) to be present and learn, 2) optimize concentration and learning, 3) create an environment to trigger the appropriate mental and emotional state for learning, and 4) optimize arousal and regenerate vision.  By taking charge of your own teaching/learning process and configuring yourself to be present through active participation, learning is enhanced.

References

Asurion Research (November 19, 2019). Americans Check Their Phones 96 Times a Day. https://www.asurion.com/about/press-releases/americans-check-their-phones-96-times-a-day/#:~:text=Despite%20our%20attempts%20to%20curb,tech%20care%20company%20Asurion1.

Birkett M. A. (2011). The Trier Social Stress Test protocol for inducing psychological stress. Journal of visualized experiments: JoVE, (56), 3238. https://doi.org/10.3791/3238 

Chetwynd, J., Mason, L.A., Almendras, M., Peper, E., Harvey, R. (2020). Posture Awareness Training.  Poster presented for the 51th Annual Scientific online Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. (Dec 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 2020). https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.20194.76485

 Degges-White, S. (April 13, 2020). Dealing With Zoom Anxiety. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/202004/dealing-zoom-anxiety

Flanigan, A.E. & Titsworth, S. (2020). The impact of digital distraction on lecture note taking and student learning. Instr Sci, 48495–524. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-020-09517-2

Fosslien, L. & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to combat Zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review. April 29, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue

Giunchiglia, F. Zeni, M.,  Gobbi, E., Bignotti,E., & Bison, I. (2018). Mobile social media usage and academic performance, Computers in Human Behavior, 82, 177-185. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.12.04

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Intolo, P., Shalokhon, B.;, Wongwech, G., Wisiasut, P., Nathavanij, S., & Baxter, D.G. (2019). Analysis of neck and shoulder postures, and muscle activities relative to perceived pain during laptop computer use at a low-height table, sofa and bed. Work, 63(3), 361-367. https://doi.org/10.3233/WOR-192942

Jelaca, M., Anastasovski, I., & Velickovska, L.L.A. (2020). A report on the impacts of the coronovirus SARS-CO-2 “Shelter-in-place order” on fitness and well-being. Research in Physical Education, Sport and Health, 9(1), 13-18. https://doi.org/10.46733/PESH2090013j

Keller, A. S., Davidesco, I., & Tanner, K. D. (2020). Attention Matters: How Orchestrating Attention May Relate to Classroom Learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education19(3), fe5. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-05-0106

Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. https://www.amazon.com/Gesture-Visible-Action-as-Utterance/dp/0521542936/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Gesture%3A+Visible+Action+as+Utterance.&qid=1617248925&s=books&sr=1-2

Kuhfeld, M. Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, Al., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the Potential Impact of COVID-19 School Closures on Academic Achievement. Educational Researcher, 49 (80, 549–565 https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20965918

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[1] We thank Professor Jackson Wilson for his incisive comments.

[2] In this paper will use Zoom as the example for synchronous online teaching although the concepts may apply equally to other platforms such Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.

[3] Zoom and other synchronous online platforms provide tools to indicate that you would like to speak (e.g., electronic hand raising); however, it is an issue of how the class session is designed (e.g., do you use breakout rooms, are there structured requests for interaction). 

[4] Zoom has a feature to hide yourself. Start or join a Zoom meeting. The meeting automatically begins in Speaker View and you can see your own video. Then, right-click your video to display the menu, then choose Hide Myself.


Clean the air with plants

Fresh clean air is essential for health while polluted air is an environmental health hazard.  For more than fifty years the harm of air pollution has been documented.  As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH NIEHS) points out, initially air pollution was primarily regarded as threat to respiratory health and contributed to an increases in asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic bronchitis. More recently, air pollution has been identified as a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, obesity, reproductive, neurological, and immune system disorders and ADHD (Keller et al., 2018; Perera et al, 2014; NIH NIEHS ).

Yet many of us are unaware that often the air we breathe indoors is even more polluted than the outside air.  The indoor air is the sum of outdoor air plus the indoor air pollution produced from cooking and outgassing of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the many materials (Wolkoff, 2028). Materials and equipment in home and office also shed micro dust particles and outgas a chemical brew of volatile organic compounds (e.g., formaldehyde, benzene and tricholorethylene). These VOCs come from paper, inks, furniture, carpet, paints, wall coverings, cleaning materials, floor tiles and the fumes produced from gas heaters and cooking stoves. In addition, copiers and laser printers often add microscopic dust particles and sometimes ozone. These gasses stay in the room where there is limited air circulation due to sealed buildings or closed windows. Reduced air circulation is also a significant risk factor for COVID-19; since, the virus keeps recirculating in unventilated rooms. See the superb graphic illustration by Bartzokas et al (Feb 26, 2021).in the New York Times  of virus concentration in schools when the windows are opened.   https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/26/science/reopen-schools-safety-ventilation.html?smid=em-share).

Be proactive to reduce pollution and enhance your health by placing plants in your office and home. When the plants are placed in the office, they also enhances subjective perceptions of air quality, concentration, and workplace satisfaction as well as objective measures of productivity (Nieuwenhuis et al., 2014). Certain plants help remove carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen, clear the indoor smog, and remove the volatile organic compounds. Warning: Be sure that your pets do not chew or eat the leaves of these plants because they could be poisonous (e.g., azaleas are poisonous for dogs and cats),

The following plants help remove carbon dioxide and by converting it into oxygen.

  • Areca Palm.  You will need four shoulder height plants per person to convert all the exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen (Meattle, 20009; Meattle, 2018).
  • Mother-in-law’s Tongue is a bedroom plant because it converts carbon dioxide into oxygen at night. You will need six to eight shoulder height plants per person (Meattle, 20009).

Watch Kamal Meattle short TED talk presentation, How to grow fresh air (for an updated longer presentation watch, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXgWxRUGLwM). https://www.ted.com/talks/kamal_meattle_how_to_grow_fresh_air?language=en#t-100683

The following plants remove VOCs from the air (Wolverton, 2020).

  • Azaleas, rubber plants, tulips, poinsettia, philodendron, money plant, and bamboo palms (formaldehyde)
  • Areca palm (toluene)
  • Lady palm (ammonia)
  • Peace lily and chrysanthemum (acetone, methanol, trichlorethylene, benzene, ethylacetate)

To remove particulates, install an air purifier with a HEPA filter.

After renovation or installation of furniture or carpets, be sure to allow for air circulation by opening windows and doors. Explore some of the following strategies to clean the air:

  • Turn the exhaust fan on when cooking and using the oven.
  • Ventilate your work area (open a window or door, if possible).
    • Move copier/laser printers to a well-ventilated space and/or place an exhaust fan near the printer.
    • Turn off copier or laser printers when not in use (purchase new equipment that is energy efficient and shuts down when not in use).

Take a many walks outside in nature

If possible take a walk at lunch or ask coworkers to have a walking meeting so that you can get out in the fresh air. Being in nature and forest bathing (Shinrin-Yoku)  is associated with a decrease in stress, regeneration and improvement in immune function (Park et al., 2010; Hansen et a., 2017; Lyu et al., 2019). Watch the presentation by Dr. Aiko Yoshino, Soaking Up the Benefits of Nature During the PandemicForum.

References:

Bartzokas, N., Gröndahl,  M., Patanjali, K,  Peyton, M.,Saget, B., & Syam, U. (February 26, 2021). Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools. The New York Times. Downloaded March 1, 2021.

Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. International journal of environmental research and public health14(8), 851.

Keller, J. P., Larson, T. V., Austin, E., Barr, R. G., Sheppard, L., Vedal, S., Kaufman, J. D., & Szpiro, A. A. (2018). Pollutant composition modification of the effect of air pollution on progression of coronary artery calcium: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Environmental epidemiology (Philadelphia, Pa.)2(3), e024.

Lyu, B., Zeng, C., Xie, S., Li, D., Lin, W., Li, N., Jiang, M., Liu, S., & Chen, Q. (2019). Benefits of A Three-Day Bamboo Forest Therapy Session on the Psychophysiology and Immune System Responses of Male College Students. International journal of environmental research and public health16(24), 4991.

Meattle, K. (2009). How to grow fresh air.  TED2009. https://www.ted.com/talks/kamal_meattle_how_to_grow_fresh_air?language=en#t-100683

Meattle, K. (2018). How to grow fresh air inside your house amidst pollution. Quint Fit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXgWxRUGLwM

Nieuwenhuis, M., Knight, C., Postmes, T., & Haslam, S. A. (2014). The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(3), 199–214. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000024

NIH NIEHS, Air Pollution and Your Health, National Institute of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution/index.cfm#:~:text=Air%20pollution%20can%20affect%20lung,are%20linked%20to%20chronic%20bronchitis

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine15(1), 18–26.

Perera, F. P., Chang, H. W., Tang, D., Roen, E. L., Herbstman, J., Margolis, A., Huang, T. J., Miller, R. L., Wang, S., & Rauh, V. (2014). Early-life exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and ADHD behavior problems. PloS one9(11), e111670.

Wolverton, B.C. (2020). How To Grow Fresh Air: 50 house plants that grow and purify your home or office. London, UK: Orion Spring

Wolkoff P. (2018). Indoor air humidity, air quality, and health – An overview. International journal of hygiene and environmental health221(3), 376–390.