Wellington Scoop

Keeping active during lockdown

by Associate Professor Susanna Every-Palmer, Psychiatrist and Head of Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago Wellington
For those feeling stressed and anxious at the moment – don’t be hard on yourself. You’ve been designed to feel this way. Throughout human evolution, natural selection has favoured those who get anxious and take evasive action against perceived threats. However, while this is an excellent survival strategy when faced with a hungry predator it’s not helpful with a protracted threat that we have limited control over – like COVID-19.

Data we collected last year suggest that one in three New Zealanders experienced anxiety and/or depressive symptoms during the first national lockdown. People with histories of mental illness or working on the frontline were at higher risk of poor mental health.

Many of the current stressors are the same as previously but with the added burdens of pandemic fatigue and uncertainty around the new risks associated with the Delta variant. Uncertainty activates the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. If we could test the wastewater for cortisol – a stress hormone – we would almost certainly be seeing high levels alongside the COVID-19 viral RNA.

There are many good resources available on the internet for supporting lockdown wellbeing. My number one recommendation is to prioritise exercise. Exercise is a proven strategy to combat anxiety. It reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and stimulates the production of endorphins – the brain’s ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters. Even short periods of exercise have been proven to improve mood and reduce anxiety.”

by Dr Wendy O’Brien, Assistant Lecturer, School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition, Massey University:
During the initial New Zealand lockdown last year many of us noticed the large number of people out and about exercising in our neighbourhoods. These were families on bikes, scooters, with a ball or the dog as well as bubble groups walking, running and cycling. There were the home gym setups in garages and driveways where dedicated equipment or whatever was at hand was put to use for gym workouts and circuits. Whether out of boredom, having extra time, setting about achieving fitness goals or working to burn off extra calories from Lockdown home baking, many New Zealanders heeded the Government’s advice to get out and exercise daily.

Physical activity in any form is known to have tremendous health benefits, both physically and mentally. Regular physical activity is strongly linked to improved mental health outcomes, especially related to anxiety and depression (Brunet et al., 2013; McMahon et al., 2017; Schuch et al., 2018; Teychenne et al., 2020), and has been identified as a coping strategy to facilitate lasting resilience to stress (Southwick et al., 2005). One study showed that even just 5 minutes each day of outdoor exercise improved mood and self-esteem (Barton & Pretty, 2010). The benefits of physical activity on mental health and wellbeing have been demonstrate with physical activity at almost any intensity and duration. While high-intensity workouts may suit some individuals, even just getting outside for a short walk around the block can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing.

Numerous studies undertaken worldwide during COVID lockdowns have reported that individuals who are physically active are more likely to have better mental wellbeing than those who do little or no physical activity and who have increased sitting time (especially screen time). These effects have been demonstrated in a range off populations and countries and have been related to depression, stress, anxiety and subjective wellbeing. In fact, two New Zealand studies have shown that physical activity was positively associated with mental wellbeing during our initial COVID-19 lockdown (Jenkins et al., 2021, O’Brien et al., unpublished data). One of these studies showed that compared to the lowest levels of physical activity, better wellbeing scores were almost three times more likely among those who had the highest levels, and that even people reporting only moderate levels of physical activity were one and a half times more likely to reported better wellbeing. These results valid even after taking into account factors affecting physical activity and wellbeing such as age, socioeconomic status and exercise intentions. A study that gathered data from New Zealand, Australia, UK and Ireland also reported that individuals who did less exercise during lockdown (i.e., reduced their level of exercise from pre to during lockdown) had poorer mental health and wellbeing compared to those who did the same or more exercise (Faulkner et al. 2021).

The evidence strongly suggests that almost any form of exercise, anywhere, for any amount of time has positive effects on mental wellbeing compared to no exercise. No only does this evidence support the importance of physical activity on mental wellbeing, it also highlights that the physical activity we perform does not necessarily need to be formal or structured. Simply getting moving, whether inside, outside or in front of an online exercise session will likely better equip us to endure the psychological challenges of the current and future lockdown periods.”

by Janey Goedhart, Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Clinic Manager, Exercise Well:
Covid-19 (Delta variant) has made its way to New Zealand, and we find ourselves in a nationwide Level 4 lockdown. High levels of stress and anxiety are a normal response to an unknown climate, so looking after yourself and others as best as possible is essential. Routine, exercise, sleep, and nutrition are easy to let slip during lockdown, so here are some simple tips to help:

1) Be smart with your time. Exercise every day but keep it realistic. The more limitations you can take out of doing exercise, the more likely you are to consistently stick to it. Instead of planning to do an hour’s walk and not being able to fit it in, try to plan a 15–20-minute walk instead, as you will be able to fit it into your daily routine more easily. This type of short exercise will help with anxiety, mood, sleep, energy levels, and help increase your focus at work.

2) Have a log-in, log-off time for work and stick to it. Working from home makes it tricky to differentiate work and home time. Plan your day with regular breaks, like you would usually do in the office.

3) Drink plenty of water. Coffee and tea do not count! Any form of caffeine or alcohol stops the release of the hormone responsible for absorbing water into your bloodstream. Caffeinated drinks are dehydrating you. To break even, you’ll need to have two cups of water for each cup of coffee/tea – depending on the strength of the caffeine. Being hydrated helps with a range of things such as temperature control (if you get really hot or cold, you may be dehydrated!), skin elasticity, muscle cramps, tiredness/fatigue, increases the speed of your metabolism helping with weight loss, and much more.

4) With the challenge of the highly-infectious Delta variant being passed through air particles, mask wearing is becoming essential in our communities. Wearing a mask helps prevent people who have the virus – but aren’t aware of it yet – from passing it on to other people.

As we exercise, our respiration rate increases, meaning we breathe out around 100L of air per minute, compared to just 12L per minute at rest. This highlights the importance of mask wearing while exercising, especially if you can’t guarantee you will be able to stay at least 4m apart from others.

5) Exercising with a mask on emphasises the need for deep breathing, as opposed to short, shallow breaths. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth should help slow breathing down, plus we are more used to warm air coming in through the nose compared to in through the mouth. Focus on air going all the way down into the lungs. Try to breathe out slightly longer than you are breathing in to get rid of the carbon dioxide from your body.

Re-usable masks have been reported as the most comfortable to wear, plus they protect the environment. There are plenty available online, so shop around to find one you feel comfortable in.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Epidemiologist, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington
As an epidemiologist I’m very relieved that mask-wearing is becoming an integral part of our pandemic response. But as a deaf person it saddens me that the New Zealand public is being forced to negotiate this change without a national-level programme of communication guidance and support. Many people look at faces to know what’s being said. That includes people who identify as disabled, but it also includes virtually anyone with some degree of hearing impairment. The combination of loss of information from faces, speech muffled by masks, and background noise makes for a big communication challenge.

I can confirm from my own experience as a deaf person that it’s extremely anxiety-producing to be in a situation where people are giving you important information but you can’t access what they’re saying. At best it’s frustrating for both sides. At worst, it’s simply terrifying: you know you’re being given bad news but you don’t know what’s happened.

It is an absolute no-brainer that if the Government is requiring people to wear masks, communication support must be right there wherever people need it. There should be relevant communication training and resources available for all staff in public-facing roles. Resources could include clear masks for key roles, visual information that uses text or images, and access to NZSL interpreters. In particular these measures will apply to staff managing travel at the border and at all healthcare settings that are operating at Alert Level 4. There should also be guidance for the general public, who want to do the right thing but need some pointers.

I welcome the announcement that New Zealanders are being asked to wear masks when they leave home. This is a key outbreak control measure because it significantly reduces the amount of virus that people are breathing into the air around them. So it’s especially relevant in the current situation when we don’t know the extent of community spread, and potentially a large number of people in the community may be infectious without knowing it.

There are two main ways to maximise the effectiveness of wearing a mask. The first is to add multiple layers to increase the filtering effect – aiming for at least three layers, more if you can. The second is to make sure your mask fits closely around your face so that no air is escaping out of the sides. If you can, ask someone to check your mask before you go out so you’re confident that there are no gaps.

A final reminder is that communication will be challenging when everyone is masked up. We’ll need to be patient and creative in our interactions with strangers. It might be helpful to point to things, write key messages down, or show somebody an image or text on your phone. Alert Level 4 is a great opportunity to brush up on your finger-spelling skills – that’s the alphabet of New Zealand Sign Language. It’s a great way to clear up confusion when someone is struggling to hear.

Contributions from the Science Media Centre

Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
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