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NMSU researcher co-authors article on damaging effects of social isolation due to COVID-19

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While scientists and doctors are still working to understand the virus that causes COVID-19, the pandemic has also had many indirect effects on the health of people working remotely while in isolation.

A group of researchers from Australia and the U.S., including New Mexico State University, recently co-authored an article for the International Journal of Sports Science offering tips to increase physical activity, which will not only benefit physical health but mental health as well.

Joseph Berning, interim head of the Department of Kinesiology and Dance in NMSU’s College of Education, co-authored “COVID-19: Sedentary Isolation – A Bad Combination.” The article states that before the COVID-19 virus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March by the World Health Organization, people were already living mostly sedentary lifestyles.

“While some people have bits and pieces of exercise equipment laying around at home, most do not and find themselves developing cabin fever staying at home,” Berning said. “The walls may seem to be closing in around you, which can be a source of stress in and of itself. Often times, unfortunately, when boredom or stress works its way into our lives, we tend to binge eat. Before you know it, you’ve gained five to 10 pounds of fat weight, the exact opposite of the definition of good health.”

Berning and the article’s co-authors have experience in higher education and research in applied and clinical exercise physiology for almost three decades each. Berning said he and his colleagues have adopted health and wellness as a lifestyle and exercise is a part of their normal daily routines.

“When COVID-19 set in, nothing changed for each of us and our training routines,” Berning said. “In fact, because so many of us are working from home, we found we could actually increase workouts.”

However, Berning and his colleagues have had to adapt to more time in front of their computers as online meetings have become the norm.

“Online hasn’t always made things easier and an argument can be made that online has actually created more meetings and therefore decreased our physical movement,” Berning said. “I admit, I find myself standing behind a computer from morning to night, and often seven days a week. I know the only way to combat this is to force yourself to get out and move.”

According to the article, social isolation has been recognized to have a profound impact on health and longevity. Anxiety, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, among other mental health issues, have been shown to be related to social isolation. Major chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and weakened immune systems are also exacerbated by social isolation.

“Our body was designed to work, be active and move,” Berning said. “We know relative to positive health, people who perform regular daily exercise live longer, experience less damaging health risks, experience fewer sick days per year, sleep better, perform better academically, decrease stress and maintain a higher quality of life.”

Berning said that once people adopt physical exercise as a lifestyle, getting up to exercise isn’t a “forced” activity, but a welcome one.

“This research is so important because it reminds all of us that we need to keep moving,” said Henrietta Pichon, interim dean of the College of Education. “Hopefully, this can serve as a reminder to individuals that now is the best time to start or restart an exercise routine.”

The article offers the following tips for physical activity:
• Move more, sit less.
• Accumulate at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking briskly, dancing or general yard work; or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity such as jogging, energetic dancing or heavy yard work.
• Perform muscle strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups two to three days a week.

“The bottom line: don’t make excuses.” Berning said. “Get up and off the chair or couch several times a day if even for 10 minutes at a time. This isn’t about the perfect exercise prescription. This is about being active and the mental and physical health benefits associated with human movement.”

Phillip Post, interim associate dean for academics in the College of Education, said the work and recommendations made in the article by Berning and his colleagues are more important than ever.

“Currently there is no medication that can do what exercise can do for the body and mind,” Post said. “We know that exercise enhances the immune system, cognitive functioning, physiological functioning and emotional well-being. Given COVID-19, we could all reap the benefits of moving more and regularly incorporating exercise into our daily routine. I hope our community reads and adopts Dr. Berning’s physical activity recommendations.”