The coronavirus pandemic has completely reconstructed how we go about our lives. From the way we live and socialize with others to the way we learn, the pandemic has forced us to adapt to a new virtual environment. As universities like USC continue to adapt to both teaching and learning online, a huge toll weighs on the physical health of everyone involved.
The general decline in wellness is more concerning as each day passes in this new virtual world.
Struggling with healthy sleep habits
A prominent issue many students are struggling with is maintaining good sleep habits. This is especially true for students who live in different time zones and are forced to sacrifice sleep for class.
For Joon Chun, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, he’s grateful to professors who were considerate of his time zone difference when he was taking classes back home in South Korea. By switching to asynchronous classes and having extensions for homework, he has been able to adapt to virtual learning a bit easier.
However, this is not always the case.
“There were a few classes in which they didn’t help us, even though we were in a different time zone. So, I had to sometimes stay up until 3 a.m., 4 a.m. attending lectures,” Chun said. “Most of the time I tried to sleep as soon as I could, which ended up being like 5 a.m.”
In trying to prioritize his health, Chun was forced to skip some of his classes to sleep. But sleep issues are not just a problem for students in different time zones.
Even when students aren’t in a new time zone, it has become easier to take naps in between classes and stay up later at night. For Lianne Chu, a junior majoring in business administration, she finds herself sleeping more but inversely finds it harder to wake up early.
“At USC, I would wake up pretty consistently at like 7:15 a.m. every day. But now it’s hard to even wake up … at like 9 or even like 10 sometimes,” Chu said.
Laura Cox, an assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy, explains how virtual learning has inevitably increased the time students spend in front of a screen which has drastically impacted students’ sleep habits. The constant light input we get from our screens deceives our brains into thinking it is still daytime.
“It’s very confusing and can be dysregulating to our circadian clock. So we do need to put our devices to bed to allow our melatonin, which is our sleep hormone, to build up so we can sleep better,” Cox said.
She recommends students put their devices down about 30 minutes before their own bedtime and try to create a separation between their virtual lives and their “real” ones. As an inconsistent sleep schedule is a leading cause of poor quality sleep, it is most important to have a consistent routine. Additionally, forcing yourself to go outside during the day can help to recalibrate your circadian rhythm and help you fall asleep easier at night.
“[When] we’re getting less restorative sleep, we’re going to feel more tired and sleepy during the day,” Cox said. “You can kind of imagine this as if you’re inflicting jetlag upon yourself. It’s hard to adjust to a new clock, new time zone of wherever you’ve traveled, and therefore, you feel more tired.”
Irregular sleep habits are often associated with poor health. It puts people at an increased risk for metabolic health problems like obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugars. For students, having poor sleep hygiene makes it a lot harder to focus in class and stay motivated.
Nilay Desai, a sophomore majoring in human development and aging, noticed that before the pandemic, he was able to sleep by midnight at the latest, but now, he can’t seem to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
“My sleep patterns have been absolutely wrecked,” Desai said. “I have not been able to sleep … regularly because it takes me like an hour, I’d say like after … I stop looking at a screen … to actually be able to go to sleep. So that’s been difficult, especially because like literally everything is online.”
Because of his inconsistent sleep schedule, Desai has been struggling with balancing physical and virtual learning as he feels fatigued nearly every day.
“[I’m] fatigued pretty much all the time … but I can’t stop looking at a screen because then I won’t learn from any of my classes, so it’s all just one whole cycle of pain,” Desai said.
Ashley Halle, associate professor of clinical occupational therapy, recommends separating virtual activities from other parts of life by creating a schedule, mindfully sticking to it and avoiding doing any work in bed.
“You want to avoid doing work in bed and using electronics in your sleep space,” Halle said. “We want, really, that space to become associated with calm, restorative, restful sleep and relaxation.”
Not only will this improve sleep habits, but it will also improve ergonomics and avoid a plethora of other physical issues.
The consequences of poor ergonomics
Ergonomics deals with designing an environment or job to maximize safety and efficiency. Incorporating good ergonomic habits into our life can help reduce accidents, injuries and fatigue.
“Poor ergonomics does mean that there is an increase in muscle strain, imbalance and fatigue,” Halle said. “And so what happens is that, physically, if you continue with poor ergonomics, is that you’re going to experience injuries.”
It is tempting and easy to just take classes from our warm, comfy beds or sofas, but this puts strains on the joints, increases fatigue and is terrible for the body.
But poor ergonomics don’t just arise from taking classes in bed. Many students don’t have an optimal setup in their homes for taking classes that one would have at a university.
“As students, we already sit down a lot, especially for virtual classes,” Chun said. “My desk is not the best desk — it’s pretty small and I’m a big person. So to crouch down and stare at my screen for like two hours a day, or two hours per class six hours a day. It’s not the best.”
As Chun was already suffering from general back pain, virtual classes have intensified this problem.
One way to relieve any soreness or improve ergonomics is to find ways to move and make small checks with posture.
“A couple key points that I want to share: [ensure] that our feet are flat on the floor … under there, all our lower body joints should be at a 90-degree angle — that’s our hips, our knees, our ankles,” Cox said. “We want to think about stacking our ears over our shoulder, shoulders over our hips. And we want to let our arms relax at our sides and have our elbows be at 90 degrees.”
Many think that having good ergonomics in your workspace requires expensive solutions, such as buying a new ergonomic chair, a laptop stand or getting a fancy standing desk. While all of these help to promote healthy posture, not all students have the resources or the proper learning environment to do this. Nonetheless, making small checks with posture or just getting in a small walk outside helps improve well-being.
“If you can think creatively, there are some really inexpensive solutions to some common ergonomic problems that people can do,” Halle said. “Start with [the] core principles that are laid out: How should my body be sitting in this space? What is my current workplace, my current workstation, or desk or study space look like? And then, what modifications do I need to make to make it a little bit better?”
The ramifications of virtual learning
“It’s hard to give a blanket prescription to all students. Everybody’s case is going to be a little bit different and what’s going to work for them and finding that balance,” Cox said. “But I think where I would start is by just stressing how important it is to be intentional.”
Whether this is spending five minutes to plan out your day, planning meals, taking a small walk down the street after your third class of the day or just finding ways to fit in breaks that don’t involve staring at a screen, the little things add up. All in all, it is important for students to try and escape their virtual bubbles as safely as they can. It is convenient to close Zoom and open up YouTube after class, but continuing to stare at the screen will only increase problems and add to eye strain.
The challenge of not being able to go outside as much has also limited how much exercise students are getting. Before the pandemic, even those who did not regularly go to the gym got their needed exercise naturally throughout the day by walking to class, to the store or to general meetings here and there.
“Overall, we are just more sedentary where there’s not these natural breaks in our day,” Cox said. “All of this kind of natural movement, natural social interaction, that happens when we’re in person, it isn’t happening anymore, so then we have to manufacture it for ourselves. And so I think that’s been the tough part.”
Jessica Aftosmis, a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering, would get close to 30,000 steps a day running around campus but now finds herself walking less than 5,000 steps daily.
“Because your whole life is limited to one to two rooms when you’re learning virtually, there’s nowhere for you to go,” Aftosmis said. “When your physical health system is reliant upon you moving from place to place on foot and now you don’t have to move place to place on foot … you just lose that entire workout regime.”
Nonetheless, it is important to try to get as much physical movement into the day as possible. Halle recommends just finding different ways to move.
“I think physically, one of the best things that you can do is, while you’re learning in a remote context, is to move,” Halle said. “Even small movements can make a big difference for your body.”
Being isolated in our cyberspace bubbles has also been detrimental to students’ motivation and general mental health. Often, we separate mental health and physical health from each other when they are deeply interconnected.
“Some of the concerns that people have about spending so much time attached to your computer, like the Zoom fatigue, it’s not just fatigue in terms of physical fatigue, but it’s also the mental and emotional fatigue,” Halle said.
Zoom fatigue has impacted students across the country. It has been described as exhaustion or burnout associated with the endless use of virtual communication platforms. Current research shows that spending more time on video calls with minimal breaks increases Zoom fatigue. This comes from the lack of nonverbal cues and the challenges of interpreting body language through a screen. Theresa Machemer, a writer for National Geographic said that people start to overcompensate their own body language as they struggle to understand their colleagues’ moods.
“I’ve definitely had issues with Zoom fatigue and just like trying to keep myself, I guess, motivated for classes,” Desai said. “It gets really difficult when all you do is look at a screen.”
But the lack of motivation was not instantaneous. Rather, it is as if the pandemic and virtual learning are slowly sucking energy reserves.
“I don’t feel as productive, as motivated. I feel like I’m in this just this lull of like, I’m not going anywhere,” Chu said. “But there wasn’t like one day I woke up and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m like not motivated at all, like, my mental health is gone’ … Day by day, it just kind of got worse.”
Halle emphasizes the need to step away from your screen whenever possible, not only for physical health but for mental health as well.
One question Halle suggests asking is, “what restorative activities can I do that will restore me physically, mentally and emotionally?”
The three variables go hand in hand with each other, and when they aren’t balanced, we begin to feel fatigued and lack motivation, Halle said. Everyone’s toolkit to restoring their wellbeing is different, but we should all have one to balance our energy. Chun recommends jump roping, while Desai has found running to be the most therapeutic. For Aftosmis, cutting off all electronic devices for a period of time each day to separate her personal life from work life has helped her most. Like Aftosmis, Chu is trying to be more mindful of taking a break each day.
“Just knowing when to take a step back and, and tell yourself ‘OK, I can afford an hour away from the screen’ … that gives me a clear mind to come back to whatever work I was working on originally,” Chu said.
Whatever your tools may be, don’t let this new virtual world consume you.
“[Find] just one thing that you feel capable of and motivated about changing in your daily routine, whether it has to do with your sleep, physical activity, eating,” Cox said. “So if you want to start eating healthier, OK, like, what’s one thing you could do this week? … A student might need to start a little bit smaller, and that’s OK. You just need to meet [yourself] where [you’re] at and set an intention.”
If you are experiencing any symptoms of poor ergonomics, difficulty maintaining a solid sleep routine or are struggling with your overall well-being due to the pandemic, learn more about how to request a consultation with USC Occupational Therapy.