So much of our lives are now contained in our computers and phones – we finished classes and club meetings on Zoom, we talk to friends virtually and many of us will do online internships in the summer. We’ve done this to protect ourselves from COVID-19, but science shows that a sedentary lifestyle and looking at screens can also put our health at risk.
I didn’t track my heart rate during a class, because that would be a snoozefest (almost literally), but here’s how some things we do while Zooming every day may affect our bodies – and what we can do this summer to protect ourselves during online work or Netflix binges.
Staring at a screen
The average American – at least, before quarantine – spent about seven hours a day looking at a screen. Personally, I know I’m spending more than that now. And it’s not great – excessive screen time can cause eye strain, blurred vision, nearsightedness, headaches, and neck and back pain. There’s even a medical diagnosis for this: Computer Vision Syndrome, or Digital Eye Strain.
To prevent these issues, the American Optometry Association promotes the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to stare at something that’s about 20 feet away from you. After we stare at a screen, the muscles in our eyes may struggle to adjust to viewing real-world objects again. Taking these short breaks can help keep your eye muscles active and prevent things from looking fuzzy when you finally get out of class or finish your paper.
Surprisingly, we sometimes may forget to blink while staring at screens, so try to keep that in mind to avoid dry eyes. It wouldn’t hurt to stay hydrated, too, which can help prevent headaches.
And at night, turn on a blue light filter on your computer and phone to protect your sleep. Bright screens can disrupt our circadian rhythms, which rely on blue light from the sun to tell us when to be awake and when to sleep.
Sitting in a chair
Long-term seated lifestyles leave lasting damage. For one, sitting for hours can disrupt blood flow to your brain, inhibiting thinking and memory in the short term and possibly leading to dementia, The New York Times reported. A study comparing sedentary transit drivers to more active conductors and guards found that sitting all day increases the risk of heart disease. Further, too much sitting can shorten life spans, put stress on your back and increase the risk of dementia, diabetes or cancer.
Had I tracked my heart rate, maybe you’d see it spike now, as I write about these health effects while sitting in front of my computer. What can we do to protect ourselves? Exercise is part of it, but really, you need to break up your sitting time. Just because you don’t have to run from Fisk to Tech in 10 minutes between classes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still take breaks to move. Get up, stretch, get a drink of water and try to get some steps in.
Mayo Clinic recommends taking a break to stand every 30 minutes. You can also stand while taking phone calls, watching TV or doing work. If you get a break in online meetings, use that time to move around, too. And when you have time, go on walks or do exercise to counter the effects of sitting.
When interactions take place largely on Zoom, it’s mentally exhausting. Our brains generally rely on nonverbal cues in conversation to understand what’s going on. When we talk on Zoom, lags from poor connections or broken up pictures make our brains work harder to keep up. It’s also hard to focus on any one person when there are so many on the screen.
When you’ve got all that added stress from doing classes, club meetings, or work meetings on Zoom, it seems silly that all other interactions should be there, too. If you’re leading a meeting, maybe try giving everyone the option to turn the video off.
There are also ways to stay in touch with your friends that don’t include a video call, such as Netflix Party, where you can watch Netflix and text in a group chat. There are plenty of online multiplayer games (RIP Club Penguin Online) including the pictionary-like skribbl.io, Buzzfeed Quiz Party, which allows friends to take Buzzfeed quizzes together and compare results, and many more.
And if you don’t want to look at a screen at all, try talking on the phone – I’ve started to really enjoy going on walks at the same time as friends while talking on the phone. My friend started a postcard exchange (I still have to write back…). Maybe you could start a book club.
Going forward, keep these tips in mind to protect yourself in the summer. But looking back … we made it. Through private messages in class, relying on memes and even attending lectures from bed, we finished a quarter of Zoom University.