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UML Experts Offer Advice for Studying and Working from Home

Young black woman wearing mask, seated on grass, working on laptop on her lap

11/13/2020
By Edwin Aguirre, Ed Brennen and Katharine Webster

Too much screen time. Backaches and eye strain. Trouble sleeping. 

The list of the effects of learning and working remotely during COVID-19 goes on. While we socially distance and mask up to avoid the virus, we can also take steps to stay healthy, productive and on task in class and at work. 

UML experts share their suggestions for navigating the latest wave of COVID-19.

Stretch Yourself to Avoid the Aches and Strains of Too Much Screen Time

If you’re sitting in front of a computer all day, maintaining good posture and setting up a well-planned work space are keys to avoiding to avoiding pain, strain and long-term physical problems, says Asst. Prof. of Physical Therapy and Kinesiology David Cornell. When people slump, rounding their shoulders and then craning their necks to see the computer screen, some muscles get tight and others weaken, a condition called “upper-crossed syndrome,” he says.

To prevent that, he recommends checking out the university’s ergonomics website, which also includes information for setting up your work space and exercises for avoiding eye strain and some back, neck and arm stretches.

Cornell, and Doctor of Physical Therapy students Lauren Crowley and Alicia Wohlgemuth, suggest some additional exercises, too (see below).

It’s also vital to get up and walk for five or 10 minutes every hour, Cornell says. If you’re in the middle of a longer class, turn off your video and march in place while you listen. And when the professor gives you a break, take it, he says: “Go walk somewhere. Get out of the room. Don’t just sit there. Do a lap around your house or apartment.”
Demo of shoulder squeeze

Squeeze Your Shoulder Blades Together

Squeeze your shoulder blades together (down and back) several times an hour.
Demo of pec butterfly stretch

Perform Butterfly Pectoral Stretch

Do “butterfly stretches” to stretch the pectoral muscles. Place your hands on the back of your head, elbows out and push your elbows back.
Demo of chin tucks

Do Chin Tucks

Use your index finger to push your chin back so your neck is straight.
A smooth, concrete bike path.

Exercise and the Great Outdoors Help Combat Pandemic – and Zoom − Fatigue

Staying active and spending time outdoors are more important than ever for well-being, campus health and fitness experts say. 

“It can be as simple as spending time outside in your yard or taking a walk around your neighborhood,” says Kevin Soleil, assistant director of Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Adventure and Bicycle Programs.

Soleil likes to go for a walk or bike ride first thing in the morning to get his heart rate up before sitting down at his computer for work. He also tries to break up screen time throughout the day with brief respites of physical activity.

“With everything on Zoom, we don’t have to get up,” Soleil says. “When we were on campus, walking from meeting to meeting or class to class, we didn’t realize how much that time actually helped us get through the rest of the day. It let us interact with the world in a way that wasn’t so dictated by notifications.”

Asst. Director of Fitness and Wellness Diana Dellogono, who runs Campus Recreation’s in-person and online group fitness classes, says exercise is especially important for physical and mental well-being at a time of heightened stress.

To make sure you stick with your workout schedule, Dellogono suggests adding it to your calendar to hold yourself accountable. And if you’re working out at home, she says it helps to create a separate exercise space, if possible.

Group Fitness

“If you’re in one room on your computer all day, and now that one room becomes your fitness class, see if you can make some sort of mini transition so you feel like you’re going into a different place,” she says. “See if there’s a way to move some furniture or change the lighting so you feel like you have escaped.”

And as another New England winter approaches, Soleil suggests getting cold weather gear ready so you can spend time outside.  

“You have to adapt to the seasons,” he says.  “We won’t be able to go into the gyms as much, so being able to exist outside comfortably in all seasons is going to help people get through the winter.”

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Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

The benefits of restful and plentiful sleep are well documented – better brain function, a strengthened immune system and improved mental health − to name just a few.

Insufficient deep sleep at the start of the night makes it harder to function the next day, while a lack of early morning, REM sleep – the kind when we’re having lots of dreams – leads to an increase in anxiety and depression, says Assoc. Prof. of Nursing Yuan Zhang, who researches how to promote good sleep.

“That morning REM sleep is very important, because humans process their emotions and release their stress then,” Zhang says.

If you are struggling to get a solid night’s sleep during the coronavirus pandemic, there are strategies that can help.

Zhang recommends shooting for eight hours of quality shut-eye every night. She suggests going to bed no later than 11 p.m., when you’re most likely to fall into a deep, restorative sleep. 

And if you’re routine includes an afternoon caffeine jolt, skip it. Don’t drink coffee, caffeinated tea or soda after 2 p.m., she says. Zhang also recommends no vigorous exercise after 8 p.m. and no hot showers after 10 p.m.
In the hour before sleep, turn off computers, tablets and mobile phones because blue light from those screens suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone essential to falling and staying asleep. Listen to some light music, meditate, read a book or fold your laundry instead.

And her final suggestion: Before you fall asleep, write your “To Do” list for the next day.
Lucas Abreu is an Exercise Science major who has risen to the challenge of the remote learning environment.
Young woman wearing mask works on laptop outdoors

We Interrupt this Story … to Bring You Tips for Staying Productive

Staying productive while spending so much time in front of a screen can be a challenge. Asst. Prof. of Management Elana Feldman says the best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to be smart about how you manage that time. 

“Because people are doing so much more on their screen, they’re letting everything bombard them, and they’re responding in a very scattered way as opposed to really thinking about what’s important,” says Feldman, who researches how interruptions affect work. 

Feldman suggests turning off notifications on your phone and closing your email when you need to focus, and then catching up on what you missed during a break. She also suggests picking one or two times a day to catch up on your news feeds, or “doom scrolling.” 

Being mindful of your school-life or work-life boundaries is also important.

“People get into the habit of constantly checking their phone or computer, which means you’re not in the moment when you are allowed to be offline,” she says. “It’s not easy, but you’ve got to try to maintain that boundary.”

And while continuously checking texts and Instagram notifications will diminish your productivity, Feldman points out that other interruptions can actually be good for you.

“If you notice your back hurts, or you’re hungry, or you decide it’s time for a break — those types of self-interruptions are really important,” Feldman says. “Pay attention to your self-care and let it interrupt you.”

Keep Vigilant to Steer Clear of Computer Viruses

Even when you are hunkered down and working or studying remotely during the pandemic, computer viruses can still find their way to you. Computer Science Prof. Xinwen Fu, director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Internet Security and Forensics Education and Research (iSAFER), offers the following tips for keeping laptops, tablets and cellphones safe and secure:
  • Avoid clicking on links in unsolicited email and do not open e-mail attachments from senders you don’t recognize.
  • Use software and apps from known companies. Do not install software and apps from the internet arbitrarily, particularly pirated software, which often has malware planted.
  • Stay vigilant whenever an email asks for password change, money or sensitive personal information. For example, if you received an email from “UML” asking you to change your password, double-check if the provided link is really from the university. Or even better, contact the UML Information Technology Office to confirm. Phishing is a popular way for attackers to collect data since the email looks like it’s coming from authorities or trusted teachers, friends and relatives.
  • Activate or enable antivirus toolsContact the university IT staff for help, if needed. UMass Lowell has Sophos Anti-Virus available for use by active faculty, staff and enrolled students for free. Update your operating system and web browser regularly.
Closeup on woman's hands typing on laptop placed on crosslegged legs
  • Create and use strong passwords and PINs.