Pack Hacks for Faculty: Keeping Up With Keeping Fit

Welcome back to Pack Hacks for Faculty. Each month, a member of the NC State faculty will provide quick tips, advice and other insight to facilitate your teaching, research, scholarship or engagement activities. If you are interested in making a submission for a future Pack Hacks for Faculty, please review our submission guidelines and contact provost-communications@ncsu.edu if you have questions.

This month, Renee Harrington, lecturer, and Kari Lewis, assistant teaching professor, both in the Department of Health and Exercise Studies, give faculty and students tips for keeping physically fit during online teaching and learning.

Keeping Up With Keeping Fit

Renee Harrington
Kari Lewis

Renee Harrington
Renee Harrington

During the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and students have worked together to address challenges and opportunities related to online teaching and learning. Physical fitness may seem difficult during this time, but keeping it in mind will give many benefits.

Physical Impacts of Online Learning

Some of the biggest impacts of the shift to online teaching and learning have been decreased physical activity (including sitting for too long) and increased screen time. On campus, faculty and students often do a fair bit of walking during the day, and that’s something you don’t necessarily think about until you’re not doing it. At home, you have to be very intentional about getting in an appropriate amount of movement each day.

Studies have shown that increased screen time is linked with increased depression, anxiety and perceived attention problems. Some students may also be experiencing sleep disruptions. Students who are now residing in a different time zone than the university are having to adjust schedules to accommodate classes at specific times on Zoom. 

A regular sleep schedule is important as sleep deprivation causes deficits in the prefrontal cortex, which normally keeps our amygdala, the  emotional and impulse region of the brain, in check. To reinforce a regular sleep schedule, it can be helpful to turn off your electronics and do something relaxing the hour before bed such as reading a book, doing some gentle stretching, listening to a guided meditation, etc.

Preventative Measures

Kari Lewis
Kari Lewis

To reduce some of the negative physical impacts of online learning, it is important to stay physically active, eat healthy, prioritize stress reducing activities, and of course, sleep. 

It’s critical to be active to maintain cardiorespiratory health, maintain muscle mass and bone density all of which can suffer from too much sitting and inactivity. To stay physically active, it is helpful to plan breaks for physical activity, even if for 10 minutes. Set timers to get up and move in between classes/Zoom meetings, etc. Faculty can encourage students in their asynchronous classes to develop their own “study break routine” that they can implement to get the regular physical and mental break during the day. For synchronous classes, instructors can incorporate a slide during lengthy learning modules that has students take a break and engage in five minutes of an activity of their choice. Additionally, it may be helpful to get a stand up desk or move your computer to a place where you can stand for part of the day.

Equally important is to develop and/or reinforce healthy eating habits. Your food choices each day affect your health — how you feel today, tomorrow, and in the future. As with physical activity, making small changes in your diet can go a long way. Being active also helps with brain health and cognition, concentration, attention, stress management, and mood.

Ways to Keep Physically Fit

Most of us are familiar with the physical benefits of activity and exercise; it is also important to remember that there are many ways to stay active. 

  • Take online workout classes: Many online websites and apps are offering free workouts. You can get creative if you don’t have much equipment around. If you don’t have access to weights, you can use items from around the house as substitutes, such as bottles of water, canned food, laundry detergent bottle, etc. Additionally, body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, planks and push-ups are always effective.
  • Go for a walk: There are many benefits to being outside in nature and getting fresh air. Explore a new greenway trail, park, or hiking trail.
  • Create a home-based exercise routine: Make up a circuit workout with different activities in each room, like jumping jacks, burpees and lunges. If you have stairs, climb up and down for 10 minutes at a time or work them into a strength routine with moves like inclined pushups or triceps dips. Make up your own jump rope or shadowboxing routine. Try ‘microwave exercises’ (short bursts of movement) like countertop push-ups while you are waiting for water to boil or toast to pop up.
  • Think of it as “movement” and not “exercise”: Try to think of physical activity as a lifestyle choice rather than as a designated event. For example, have a virtual dance party with friends over video chat, get outside into your garden and tackle some yard work, or play active games, like soccer, with your family.

Remember, even a small amount of activity can make a huge difference to how well you think and feel!

The Physical/Mental Health Connection

Mental and physical health are fundamentally linked. The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” The state of someone’s mental health has significant sway over the way they act, process emotions and make decisions. A person in good mental health can maintain healthy relationships, express a wide range of emotions and manage the difficulties of change.  

Mental health plays a major role in your ability to maintain good physical health. Reversed, mental health concerns affect your ability to participate in healthy behaviors and to remain physically well. While engagement in physical activity should be part of our regular routine for both physical and psychological health, it may be particularly important during this unprecedented time of unrest and uncertainty. Not only can exercise decrease stress and enhance mood, but also choosing to exercise can generate a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of control, further supporting mental health. In addition, physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals produced by the body, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein important in the regulation of stress. Therefore, physical activity plays a therapeutic role in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Additionally, exercise increases a protein that supports plasticity of the nerves and this aids in memory and learning.

Seeking Help

Most people think of mental health as the absence of diagnosable disorders, but mental health is best represented as a continuum. On one end of the spectrum are people who exhibit active resilience and are capable of taking life’s uncertainties in stride. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals whose disorders cause severe impact on daily functioning. If someone falls in the center of the spectrum, they would likely describe their mental health as “fine.” It’s possible, even common, for people to fall somewhere in the middle. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed condition and feel you function well enough in your day-to-day life, you may lack the resources to cope with a sudden change. These are some of the signs that someone’s mental health is shifting:

  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
  • Loss of energy
  • Increasing irritability and mood swings
  • Loss of performance at school or work

Students should seek help if they’re getting behind with school work. Faculty should encourage students to not wait until they’ve missed five assignments, but to act quickly and seek help even if just one or two assignments are missed. As a faculty member if you’re behind with grading and you normally are on top of things, please seek help.

Total health depends on a healthy mind and a healthy body. It is important to take time to nurture both. Going to the right doctor can make all the difference in your overall health, especially if you have a complicated condition that requires a specialist. If your emotions are suffering or you are exhibiting some of the signs above be open to seeing a mental health professional.

Faculty Encouraging Students

Faculty can encourage students to take care of their physical health by setting a good example and being a role model. A teacher who makes healthy choices – including healthy eating and regular physical activity – can have a good influence on the health of students. One way to do this is through sharing your physical activity interests with students. This not only creates a way to further connect with students, but also shows commitment to personal health that students can be inspired by. Offer assignments that focus on some aspect of physical health so that students are reminded of the importance.  Share the ways you’re staying physically active and ask students about their physical activity/health.

NC State Resources

All NC State Wellness and Recreation spaces are now available for use. The Department of Health and Exercise Studies posts workouts and fitness tips on their Instagram account, and the department’s website offers suggestions for workouts, meal planning and more. Departmental faculty are always available to answer questions or provide help for any student, faculty or staff member that reaches out for help. 

If you need additional support, there are many resources on campus to help you:

In addition, Wellness and Recreation offers a number of resources for physical health for both students and faculty including both in-person and virtual opportunities to stay active.

Renee Harrington is a lecturer in the Department of Health and Exercise Studies in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. She can be reached at rnharrin@ncsu.edu.  

Kari Lewis is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Studies in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. She can be reached at kari_lewis@ncsu.edu

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