STEPHANIE COOKSON

In the age of online learning, students are experiencing the downsides of spending extended periods of time sitting at the desk with a computer in front of them. PDBY spoke to Dr. Elzette Korkie from UP’s Department of Physiotherapy about some of the ways students can avoid these downsides and stay healthier during online learning.

In a non-representative survey of a group of [-]students, PDBY asked students what physical side-effects students have experienced more since the move to online learning. Almost 90% of the surveyed students reported more back pain and eye strain, with 76% of students experiencing more headaches. Just under 30% have experienced dizziness and nausea, and some students even cited nerve issues or numbness in hands and forearms, as well as issues with sleeping, fatigue, and worsening eyesight.

These problems are some of the most common computer-induced health issues, which typically affect musculoskeletal problems, vision, sleep, headaches, and can cause repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, which involves numbness or tingling in the hand and arm as a result of a pinched nerve in the wrist. Some studies have named motion-sickness induced from movement on screens “cybersickness”, which causes nausea, dizziness and headaches, while computer vision syndrome refers to digital eye strain, resulting from extended periods of time looking at computer screens, and can have serious long-term effects.

Almost 90% of the surveyed students reported more back pain and eye strain, with 76% of students experiencing more headaches.

Dr. Korkie explains that “the most common short-term side effects of prolonged sitting are discomfort in the hip and spinal joints [such as the] neck, upper and lower back […] as well as muscle pains in the shoulder and neck area”, and added that not addressing this effectively “might lead to tight and painful muscles, [like] muscle spasm, back and neck pain and headaches”.

“The reasons for these pains and discomfort include bad sitting posture, incorrect desk and chair height, incorrect positioning of the laptop or computer and lack of movement”, says Dr. Korkie, especially because students “move and walk between different classes, walk uphill or downhill and climb stairs” during usual on-campus learning. “Now when attending online classes students are much less active”, she says.

In terms of trying to combat these possible problems, Dr. Korkie recommends first, the ergonomic factors to keep in mind. With chair height, “when sitting on the chair the hips and knees should be [bent] 90 degrees, with the feet flat on the floor and the back supported”, she explains, adding that, for students who are too short, using a step, thick book, or even a brick under the feet is effective. Additionally, she suggests placing “a rolled-up towel or small pillow between your lower back and the chair to support your back”. The second factor is desk height. When close to the desk, “elbows should rest comfortably on the desk with no shrugging of the shoulders,” she explains. Thirdly, the position of the computer screen is important and should be directly in front of you, at an angle positioned so that “your chin is not up or in a double chin position, but forward”, and the keyboard should be forearm-length away, according to Dr. Korkie.

The reasons for these pains and discomfort include bad sitting posture, incorrect desk and chair height, incorrect positioning of the laptop or computer and lack of movement

Of the students PDBY asked, over 50% reported spending upwards of seven hours sitting at the computer a day, while 45% spend between three to five hours a day at the computer. Roughly a quarter of the students do not make time in the week to exercise or move, while just over 30% do so between one and two days a week. Almost half of the students make time for exercise or movement between three and five days a week, and 42% said that they do so for 1 hour at a time, with almost 48% doing so for less than one hour on the allocated day.

Dr Korkie emphasises the need for movement in combatting the health problems associated with online learning, suggesting 20 to 30 minutes of “brisk walking”, which means walking at a speed just before a slow jog. “This improves joint mobility, muscle function, circulation, controls blood sugar levels and improves concentration”, she says.

She also suggests specific exercises that can be helpful, noting that students should pause when they feel discomfort. For spinal movement, she recommends five repetitions of each of the following motions: look over both shoulders, look up to the roof and down to your lap, and push your chin forward and pull your chin back [to form a] double chin. For the upper back, “slouch and sit up straight [with] shoulders backwards” for five reps. “Make [your] lower back hollow [and] away from the chair, and push your lower back against the chair” five times to exercise the lower back, she says.

It is also important to move nerves and muscles. “As you sit, lift your right arm sideways with the elbow bent and the hand on your shoulder”, explains Dr Korkie. “Straighten your elbow while you turn your hand away from you as if you want to push something away”, and repeat each side five times. Additionally, create large circles using the arms, “reaching forward, sideways and backwards as far as possible”, she says.

“If you have discomfort – move”, Dr Korkie emphasises. The “rule of thumb” is that one must change their position or move “at least every 45 – 50 minutes”, according to Dr Korkie, and that “a hot shower or bath relieves muscle pain, [while] movement helps for joint pain”.

Dr Korkie emphasises the need for movement in combatting the health problems associated with online learning

It is also important to know when to seek professional help. Dr Korkie says that experiencing “muscle pain present more than five days, [without] relief when trying the above, a headache that becomes constant more than 24 hours day-and-night, and/or pain or pins and needles down your arms or legs”, it’s time to consult with a physiotherapist.

Regarding vision, computer eye strain involves the following symptoms: discomfort; headaches; painful, tired, burning, itchy, dry or watery eyes; difficulty focusing; blurry or double vision; and an increased sensitivity to light. Regularly looking away from the screen and focusing on distant objects, like looking out of a window, is helpful, because this motion relaxes the muscle inside the eye, and reduces eye fatigue. Taking a 20 second break every 20 minutes, making sure to blink, or even use eye drops, is advised. Having good lighting is also important, which means avoiding overly bright lighting, like overhead fluorescent lights. Setting computers to auto-adjust the screen brightness helps avoid looking into an overly bright screen when unnecessary. Additionally, blue-light filters have been found to help vision problems, as well as promote better sleep, and can be used through computer applications like F.lux.

Online learning and being at a desk all day, even between classes, can take its toll on the body, but there are plenty of habits or tricks to avoid this, as well as knowing the signs of when it is time to consult a medical professional.

PDBY is the official student newspaper of the University of Pretoria.
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