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/
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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
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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
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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.
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.
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.
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/).
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., 2020; Matthews 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 research, 292, 113333.
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.
 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).
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.
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.
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
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 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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8. http://dx.doi.org/10.15540/nr.5.1.3
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 We thank Professor Jackson Wilson for his incisive comments.
 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.
 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).
 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.
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.
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 health, 14(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 health, 16(24), 4991.
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 medicine, 15(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 one, 9(11), e111670.
Monica Almendras and Erik Peper
For almost a year, we have managed to survive this pandemic. As we work in front of screen many people experience screen fatigue (Bailenson, 2021). The tiredness, achiness and depressive feelings have many causes such as sitting disease, reduced social contact, constantly looking at the screen for work, education, socializing, and entertaining, and the increased stress from family illness and economic insecurity. The result is that many people experience low energy, depression, loneliness, anxiety, neck, shoulder, back pain at the end of the day (Son, Hegde, Smith, Wang, & Sasangohar, 2020; Peper & Harvey, 2018).
Yet there is hope to reduce discomfort and increase by implementing simple tips.
Take breaks and take more breaks by getting up from your chair and moving. Taking breaks helps us to clear our minds and it interrupts any ongoing rumination we may have going on. Doing this helps a person be more productive at work or when studying, and at the same time it helps retain more information (Peper, Harvey, & Faass, 2020; Kim, Park, & Headrick, 2018). How many of you reading this actually take a short break at least once during work? We stay in the same sitting position for long periods of time, even holding off to go to the restroom. We tell ourselves ‘one more minute’ or ‘I’ll just finish this and then I’ll go”. Sounds familiar? We know it is not healthy and yet, we continue doing it.
Solution: Set a reminder every twenty minutes to take a short break. Download a program on your computer that will remind you to take a break such as Stretch Break (www.stretchbreak.com). Every twenty minutes a window will pop up on your computer reminding you to stretch. It gives you simple exercises for you to move around and wiggle as shown in figure 1. You can say it breaks the spell from staying frozen in one position in front of your screen. The best part is that yet is free to download on your computer. What more can you ask for?
Figure 1. Stretch break window that pops up on your computer to remind you to stretch.
Stop slouching in front of the screen. We tend to gaze downwards to our device and slouch, which creates tension on our neck and shoulders ((Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017). And yet, we still wonder why people suffer from neck-shoulder pain and headaches. It is time to make a transformation from slouching and feeling aches and pains, to an upright posture to be free of pain.
Solution: Use an UpRight Go 2 device on your upper back or neck is a great way to remind you that you are slouching (Harvey, Peper, Mason, & Joy, 2020). The UpRight is linked via Bluetooth to the App on the mobile phone, and once you calibrate it to an upright posture, you will see and feel a vibrate when you slouch. For people who are on the computer for long hours, this will help you to be aware of your posture.
If wearing a small device on your back is not your cup of tea, or perhaps it is not in your budget at the moment. There is a solution for this, and that means you can download the UpRight Desktop App on your computer or laptop (Chetwynd, Mason, Almendras, Peper, & Harvey, 2020). The desktop version uses the camera from your computer or laptop to monitor your posture; however, at the camera cannot simultaneous be in use with another program such as ZOOM. This version provides immediate feedback through the graphic on the screen as well as, an adjustable auditory signal when you slouch as shown in Figure 2. It is also free to download, and it is available for PC and Mac (https://www.uprightpose.com/desktop-app/).
Figure 2. Posture feedback app. When slouching, the app provides immediate feedback through the graphic on the screen (the posture of figure turns red) and/or an adjustable auditory sound (from: Chetwynd, Mason, Almendras, Peper, & Harvey, 2020)
Relax your eyes and look away from the screen. Many people struggle with dry eyes and eyestrain from looking at the screen for extended time periods. We log out from work, meetings, and class; to staring at the television, tablets, and mobile phones on our free time. It is a nonstop cycle of looking at the screen, while our poor eyes never have a single break. To look at the screen, we tightened our extraocular muscles and ciliary muscles; and the result is near-vision stress (Peper, 2021).
SOLUTION: The solution to relax the eyes and reduce eyestrain will not be to buy new eyeballs online. Instead, here are three easy and free things to reestablish good eyeball health. These were adapted from the superb book, Vision for life: Ten steps for natural eyesight improvement, by Meir Schneider, PhD.
- Look out through a window at a distance tree for a moment after reading an email or clicking a link
- Look up at a distant tree and focus at the details of the branches and leaves each time you have finished a page from a book or eBook.
- Rest and regenerate your eyes with palming (Peper, 2021). To do palming, all you need to do is sit upright, place an object under your elbows (pillow or books) to avoid tensing the neck and shoulders, and cover the eyes with your hands (see figure 3). Cup your hands to avoid pressure on your eyes and with your eyes closed, imagine seeing blackness while breathing slowing from your diaphragm. For five minutes, feel how your shoulders, head, and eyes are relaxing, while doing six breaths per minutes through your nose. Once your five minutes are up, stretch or wiggle around before returning to your work. For detailed instructions, see the YouTube video, Free Webinar by Meir Schneider: May 6, 2019.
Figure 3. Position for palming.
Implement these tips as an experiment for a week and note how it affects you. Many people report that after three weeks, they experience less pain and more energy. By taking charge of your own computer work patterns, you have taken a first e first step into transforming your health.
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
Chetwynd, J., Mason, L., Almendras, M., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2020). “Posture awareness training.” Poster presented at the 51st Annual meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.20194.76485
Harvey, R., Peper, E., Mason, L., & Joy, M. (2020). “Effect of posture feedback training on health”. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 45(3). https://DOI.org/10.1007/s10484-020-09457-0
Kim, S., Park, Y., & Headrick, L. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(7), 772–786. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000308
Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8. doi:10.15540/nr.5.1.3 https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/18189/11842
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
Peper, E. (2021). “Resolve eyestrain and screen fatigue.” Well Being Journal,.30, Winter 2021 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345123096_Resolve_Eyestrain_and_Screen_Fatigue
Schneider, M. (2019. YouTube video Free Webinar by Meir Schneidere: May 6, 2019.
Son. C., Hegde, S., Smith, A., Wang, X., & Sasangohar, F. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study. J Med Internet Res, 22(9):e21279 https://doi.org/10.2196/21279
At the moment the United States and the rest of the world are participating in an unprecedented experiment of being vaccinated for COVID-19 to end the pandemic without completely knowing long-term risks. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the emergency use for the vaccine based upon clinical trials that showing that the vaccine is highly effective in reducing or preventing COVID-19 disease and morbidity (FDA, 2021). Because it is an experimental procedure, it is necessary to monitor and follow-up everyone who is vaccinated in order to identify possible rare complications that could occur in the future. What has been reported is a very rare complication of anaphylaxis that may occur immediately after administration of the vaccine by Pfizer-BioNTech (4.7 cases per million) and Moderna (2.4 cases per million) (Shimabukuro, Cole, & Su, 2021); however, this data may under report the actual negative side effects. In the recently published prospectively study by Blumenthal et al. (2021) of 64,000 employees associated with Mass General Brigham (MGB) were actively followed through a multipronged approach including email, text message, phone, and smartphone application links. The complication rate of acute allergic reaction rate was 2.1% and the severe anaphylaxis reaction was 247 cases per million. This is 50 times higher than the previously reported results which depended on voluntary reporting instate of active all participants follow-up. Nevertheless, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risk of anaphylaxis, which was experienced within the first 15-30 minutes after the vaccination and treatable. What is disturbing is that at this moment, the USA does not have a systematic long-term follow up strategy for all the people who vaccinated to identify possible delayed long-term side effects since it depends upon voluntary reporting, however, rare. Thus, we are all part of an uncontrolled experiment in which I am also participating.
At the age of 76, I choose to be vaccinated after having assessed the risk-benefits reported in the published clinical studies (the possible harm caused by Covid-19 would be significantly worse than the possible harm caused by the short and long term side effects from the vaccine). It was confusing and challenging to figure out where the vaccinations were being offered. Luckily, I searched online to find a location where I could sign up to make an appointment for the first vaccination. After having successfully navigated signing up and getting an appointment for Thursday, I contacted the older couple who live nearby and asked if they already had a vaccination appointment. When they told me that they were unable to find a location, I shared with them the information for signing up on the website.
After having received the vaccination, I installed the V-safe app in my cellphone and answered the questions on the App survey; however, to participate, I had to opt in instead of having to opt out. Later on Thursday, I received the first text message from V-safe to which I responded by answering the short symptom questions. I reported that the site of the vaccination felt sore and tight and whenever I lifted up my left arm, I felt a dull ache and stiffness. It was slightly more uncomfortable than I had experienced two years earlier from a tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine injection. That night I could not sleep on my left side since the deltoid area continued to feel sore and painful to pressure. The next day, I worked and did not look at my text messages. On Saturday morning, I realized that I had not responded to Friday’s check-in text message from V-safe. When I tried to response, the survey link embedded in the text message no longer worked. Thus, my discomfort that continued through Thursday night and Friday was not reported to the CDC.
As I still felt some slight tenderness, I also wondered how the older couple were doing since they had received the vaccine on the same day as I did. I called them to check on how they were doing and see if they had signed up with V-safe. They responded that they were doing well except for some soreness in the upper arm; however, they had not signed up for V-safe.
This experience brought to mind studies finding that when follow-up information depends voluntarily opting in, most people do not opt in. Thus, the follow-up data and reporting of possible negative side effects will be less reliable since it would reflect only a small subset of all the people who received the vaccine and are tech savvy. The CDC needs to revise their tracking strategy so that it is able to survey accurately the occurrence of side effects from everyone who gets vaccinated by enrolling them, unless they choose to opt out.
- Enroll people automatically unless they personally decide to opt-out. The enrollment process should be organized so that when an individual receives the vaccine, they automatically are enrolled. Automatic enrollment leads to much higher participation than a voluntary opt-in approach. The difference in participation has been demonstrated in many settings ranging from organ donations to signing up for 401K retirement plans. For example, in Austria, organ donation is the default option at the time of death, and people must explicitly ‘opt out’of organ donation. “In these so-called opt-out countries, more than 90% of people register to donate their organs. Yet in countries such as U.S. and Germany, people must explicitly ‘opt in’ if they want to donate their organs when they die. In these opt-in countries, fewer than 15% of people register” (Davidai, Gilovich & Ross, 2012). Similar results have been observed in employees’ enrollment in 401K saving plans (Nash, 2007). For example, in analyses of recent hires by Fortune 500 firms, 85.9% of new hires will participate in a 401 K retirement plan when they are automatically enrolled versus 32.4% if they have to voluntarily enroll (opt –in).
- The V-safe app needs to allow symptom data to be reported after the deadline. There needs to be an option to allow a delayed response. In addition, if the person did not respond to the automatic survey, the person needs to be contacted to identify the cause of the non-response.
- Longterm follow-up to monitor for possible adverse effects needs to be implemented. The minimum follow-up period needs to be two years to be able to monitor possible adverse effects that may be triggered by the vaccines. In theory, this could include “antibody-dependent enhancement” to another virus. This occurs when the immune response that has been previously activated makes the clinical symptoms worse when the person is infected a subsequent time with a different type of virus and that trigger an over-reaction, creating a cytokine storm. For example, when a person gets dengue fever and is infected a second time by a different strain of dengue, the person becomes much sicker the second time (Murphy & Whitehead, 2011). Some researchers are concerned that the vaccine in the future could cause an excessive immune reaction when exposed to another virus.
Without automatic enrollment and follow-up, the short and long-term general public safety data may be unreliable and will not accurately capture the actual frequency of side effects. The reported data may under report the actual risk. When independent researchers investigated medical procedures they often find find the complication rate three-fold higher than the medical staff reported. For example, for endoscopic procedures such as colonoscopies, doctors reported only 31 complications from 6,383 outpatient upper endoscopies and 11,632 outpatient colonoscopies. The actual rate was 134 trips to the emergency room and 76 hospitalizations. This discrepancy occurred because the only incidents reported involved patients who went back to their own doctors. The research did not capture those patients who sought help at other locations or hospitals (Leffler et al., 2010).
The data reported by the cellphone web-based app V-safe may represent possibly only 20% of the people vaccinate, biased to those who are healthier, more affluent, younger, and technologically adept. In order to be able to sign-up for V-safe and respond to the text messages, the person needs to be tech savvy, have a cellphone, and be able to respond to the text message during the same day the message is send.
Blumenthal, K.G., Robinson, L.B., Camargo, C.A., et al. (2021). Acute Allergic Reactions to mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines. JAMA. Published online March 08, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.3976
CDC (2021). V-safe After Vaccination Health Checker. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed January 30, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/vsafe.html
Davidai, S., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2012). The meaning of default options for potential organ donors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15201-15205. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1211695109
FDA (2021). COVID-19 Vaccines. Accessed January 30, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/covid-19-vaccines
Leffler, D.A, Kheraj, R., Garud, S., Neeman, N., Nathanson, L.A., Kelly, C.P., Sawhney, M., Landon, B., Doyle, R., Rosenberg, S., & Aronson, M. (2010). The incidence and cost of unexpected hospital use after scheduled outpatient endoscopy. Arch Intern Medicine, 170(19), 1752-1757. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=226125
Madrian, B. & Shea, D. (2001). The Power of Suggestion: Inertia in 401(k) Participation and Savings Behavior. ”Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(4), 1149-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2696456
Murphy, B.R. & Whitehead, S.S. (2011). Immune response to dengue virus and prospects for a vaccine. Annu Rev Immunol., 29, 587-619. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-immunol-031210-101315
Nash, B. J. (2007). Opt in or opt out? Automatic enrollment increases 401(k) participation. Region focus, 28-31. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/6670505.pdf
Shimabukuro, T.T., Cole, M., & Su, J.R. (2021) Reports of Anaphylaxis after Receipt of mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines in the US—December 14, 2020-January 18, 2021. JAMA. Published online February 12, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.1967
As we emerge from the COVID pandemic and look forward to the New Year, we can bring joy and happiness though through simple acts of kindness.