As the health ambassador for Manchester Essex Regional High School, Charlotte Lawrence seek to raise awareness about issues that impact the health of our students and community. The high school senior recently spoke with professor, health researcher and local resident, Dr. April Bowling, about the impact of Covid-19 on youth mental and physical health, why exercising outside matters and when we should consider double masking.
Q: Welcome Dr. Bowling. Can you please tell us about yourself and your work as it relates to youth, mental health and Covid-19?
A:I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Nutrition at Merrimack College. I completed my doctorate at Harvard University in Public Health, Nutrition, Obesity, and Psychiatric Epidemiology. My research is focused on how physical activity, nutrition and sleep interventions improve health in kids who have a variety of different diagnoses such as autism, ADHD, depression, and anxiety.
What possible consequence of the pandemic are you most concerned about for the youth?
There's a lot of existing what we call health disparities in the United States, as not everyone has the same access to healthcare or education. I'm worried that COVID-19 landed on top of that unequal situation and has really made existing gaps in mental health, learning, physical health much bigger. It’s concerning that there may be significant, long-term physical consequences from COVID-19 for youth. COVID-19 also affects the in-person learning and social opportunities that kids normally had, which impacts youth mental health and academic success.
What can you say from your research about the relationship between exercise, wellness, and mental health?
Unfortunately, I think people have a perception that exercise is something you have to do. There is this notion that either you're a jock and play sports and you get exercise that way, or you do it to somehow change your appearance or because you've got to do it for physical health reasons. [But] the reality is that humans were designed to move, from the time that we first learned to crawl and roll over, until the end of our lives.
Without movement, our brains don't work correctly. A lack of exercise is tied to brain outcomes such as depression, anxiety, problems with working memory and what we call executive functioning which is the ability to process information. We even see links between movement and the development of our coordination and our brain architecture. So exercise is critical for not just young people, but people of all ages, in order to maintain our mental health.
The positive message is that while a lack of physical activity is associated with very negative outcomes, getting exercise and physical activity is linked with very positive outcomes. Exercise can take many forms, you can go to the gym or just be active throughout your day; both are linked to positive mental outcomes. With exercise, we see depression, anxiety and inattention decrease, and focus increase, as well as improvement in mood and other cognitive measures.
Daily exercise is incredibly important to get all of these amazing benefits, and it is even more beneficial if you can exercise outside. This is called a synergistic effect, where if you can get in physical activity and be outside in doing so, the benefit is greater than if you just went outside, or if you just got in physical activity by itself. If you can get outside in the snow this winter, get outside, get some fresh air! Many people live in places where that's not an option, or not an easy option which is one of the disparities I spoke about. For people in situations where it might be hard to get outside, by just taking the stairs, doing jumping jacks, even [playing] video games that have exercise components to them—we call them exergames—are great ways to be active. Activity, plus getting adequate sleep, is super important.
Specific to protecting ourselves from COVID-19, we've heard about double masking. Is this something we should be practicing?
We have some new mutations of COVID-19 that are emerging, and most of what we know about transmission of COVID-19 didn't include studies that had these new mutations in them, and because they're more transmissible, this is why there is more conversation now around this idea of double masking.
Personally, whenever I have had to be in a crowded situation, like an airport or a grocery store, I do double mask. I wear a surgical mask underneath a triple layer cloth mask.
During quarantine there haven't been a lot of places where my family has needed to employ those kinds of heavy-duty methods, because we are mostly staying home. But I would say that for people traveling on airplanes or being around other people for long periods of time, double masking can't hurt. As a preventative measure based on the science, I think it makes sense.