Whenever Kerry Mummery, dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta, ends a faculty town hall, he tells the attendees to make sure they continue to connect with people, even if it’s just virtually.
“We don’t know whether virtual meetings are as good as in-person meetings. I’m sure they’re not, but in terms of reducing loneliness and social isolation, it’s important to stay connected,” he said.
Mummery, a social psychology researcher, and a colleague wrote a paper in 2006 while at the Central Queensland University searching for the mechanism that links loneliness and a lack of positive health outcomes.
They found that people who self-identified as socially isolated or lonely were significantly less likely to be physically active and have confidence that they could be active.
“The logic was if we’re socially isolated and lonely, and therefore we’re not physically active, maybe that’s the mechanism that we’re seeing where lonely people are more unhealthy than those people who have social capital, which is the people we depend on when things get tough,” he said.
So is it physical activity and exercise that’s good for us, or is it that we’re doing physical activity and exercise, and we’re interacting with other people?
Mummery said there is a mountain of research being done to show that, for the most part, there’s more adherence to exercise when it is done in a group.
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However, with COVID-19, he said the opportunities to be physically active in a group setting are limited, and the research is reflecting that. People – especially kids – have been less physically active during the pandemic.
That’s why it was important to Mummery that the university open up the Physical Activity and Wellness Centre as soon as it was safe to do so.
“We’re taking fewer people, and there’s certainly a decrease in demand, but we’re trying to ensure that we keep the facility open,” he said. “We’re trying to make an argument, at least from a social isolation perspective, about the need for them to be open.”
One element of the student population Mummery particularly worries about is international students. He has seen the effects of social isolation on international graduate students within his faculty, with students deciding to return to their home country.
“I saw one of our students – a great young kid, a very bright kid – struggling with being isolated,” said Mummery. “His social capital, his support network, all were at home, not here. So home he went.”
Compounding the issue are the dwindling opportunities for exercise and physical activity that tend to rear with the onset of colder weather.
“I’ve often said that I don’t like the term ‘social distancing,’” said Mummery. “We need to be physically distancing, but we need to be socially closer than we’ve ever been before.”
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This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s online publication Folio, a Troy Media content provider partner.