Our primary professional organization, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, holds an annual meeting each year to share news, findings, and insight in the field of behavioral medicine. At this week-long virtual event, our team will be presenting findings from a variety of projects. Topics include women’s health, midlife health, physical activity, COVID-19, ecological momentary assessment methods, social comparison, chronic pain, cancer, and mental health.
Our newest publication is now available in Translational Behavioral Medicine! You may remember from one of our previous posts that we’re interested in the #fitspiration trend on social media. This hashtag indicates content that is intended to inspire fitness behaviors and a healthy lifestyle. Posts typically use images of very fit people exercising, with an associated message. The traditional messages included with fitspiration posts focus on exercise for physical gain and emphasize toughness. For example, “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” But recently, some users have tried to shift the focus of fitspiration messages to self-compassion, communicating that exercise is self-care and self-love. For example, “You gotta do this for you. Love you. Honor you.” Recent research has investigated the potential effects of traditional versus self-compassion messages, though these studies have used small samples of only women and have included only self-reported outcomes such as body satisfaction.
Given that fitspiration is meant to inspire exercise behavior, and as we know very little about gender differences in response to traditional versus self-compassionate fitspiration messages, we set out to conduct a large study that enrolled both women and men and included an objective measure of exercise. Our new paper describes a randomized, experimental study to test the short-term effects of different types of fitspiration posts among college women and men. We used self-reported body satisfaction and exercise motivation, as well as objectively recorded visits to campus fitness centers over the following week, as our outcomes. Our hypotheses were pre-registered with the Open Science Framework.
What did we do?
This study had several stages, starting before we moved our team to Rowan University. The first stage was to develop and pre-test our fitspiration messages and images; the second was to run a small version of the study to confirm that we were on the right track (sample size = 142). When we came to Rowan, we set up the procedures again and coordinated with Campus Recreation to access students’ ID card swipes into university fitness centers (as our measure of exercise behavior). We wanted a large sample to ensure that we would be able to test our hypotheses effectively, and we ended up with a sample size of 655. Students who participated in the study completed a brief set of questionnaires and then opened a link to one of three feeds on Instagram: one with 10 fitspiration images that had traditional messages attached, one with 10 images that had self-compassion messages attached, and one with just 10 images (no message, as a control). Women were assigned to see images of women and men were assigned to see images of men, for a total of six experimental conditions. All images were the same in each gender-specific arm.
After they viewed the Instagram feeds, students completed an attention check and then answered questions about their current body satisfaction and motivation to exercise. We accessed these students’ swipes into university fitness centers over the following 7 days and counted the number of times they went to these locations. In general, we expected women to respond more positively to self-compassion messages than men, and men to respond more positively to traditional messages than women. These hypotheses were based on existing data that show gender differences in preference and response to the tone of health messages.
What did we find?
Although our pre-specified hypotheses were not supported, we did find differences in all three of our outcomes, by message type and gender. Men’s body satisfaction and exercise behavior were greatest for those who saw fitspiration images without any message, though their exercise motivation was highest for those who saw images paired with traditional messages. In contrast, women’s body satisfaction was highest for those who saw either type of message (relative to just an image), and their exercise behavior was most frequent for those who saw self-compassion messages. There were no differences in women’s exercise motivation by message type.
What does this tell us?
We concluded that self-compassion messaging may be optimal for promoting positive outcomes among women, whereas images without associated text may be optimal for promoting positive outcomes among men. This information could be extremely helpful for informing the use of #fitspiration (and other social media trends) to support healthy self-image and behaviors among college students, by tailoring messages that are most likely to have positive effects for women versus men.
What was it like to work on this study?
This is the second in a series of studies that was inspired by an assignment in my undergraduate research methods course. I couldn’t have imagined then that a series of studies would be conducted as a result one idea. We’ve also seen the #fitspiration trend grow into a social media industry since that time. I’m grateful to the CHASE team for continuing this project and conducting it on a larger scale, and I’m optimistic about this line of research and look forward to future studies to examine how “viral” trends influence of health behaviors across social media platforms.
– Sabrina DiBisceglie, former CHASE Lab Member (University of Scranton)
I really enjoyed being a part of this process, which began as a pilot at the University of Scranton and evolved into an experimental study at Rowan University. At the beginning of the experimental study, I was starting as a research coordinator in the CHASE Lab at Rowan, so I was able to help oversee data collection and coding, as well as contribute to conference presentations and manuscript preparation, which was a great learning experience. I am really happy that I was able to collaborate with Sabrina and Dr. Arigo on this project and see the experimental portion all the way through. Given how popular fitspiration is on different social media platforms, this work can help to encourage users to be more aware of the information that they are taking away from fitspiration posts.
-Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Member
This study was a first for our team in several ways. Although we’ve used experimental designs before, this is our first published experiment as a team, and it was our first collaboration with Rowan’s Campus Recreation department – the staff there were so supportive and helpful, which smoothed the way. And although we’ve preregistered our scoping review methods with the Open Science Framework before, this was our first time pre-registering hypotheses. Plus, it took more than a year and a half to collect the data, and COVID interrupted us right at the end. I’m so impressed with our team for bringing together so many different elements to produce this paper and we’re proud of the end result! We’re grateful to Sabrina for getting this started and for staying so closely involved throughout the process.
-Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director
We’re continuing to work on understanding the #fitspiration trend by examining individual differences associated with positive (vs. negative) outcomes. This includes additional, exploratory analyses on our experimental dataset (described in this post) and using data from our previous cross-sectional surveys. For example, we want to understand how social comparison processes play a role in response to viewing fitspiration posts. We hope to share more information about this work very soon!
As the COVID-19 pandemic and remote work continue into a second year, our team has been thinking more deeply about “productivity.”. What has changed about our work challenges, and what works to overcome them? How do we stay focused and energized after all this time at home? Our lab members share their thoughts in this post.
Laura (2nd-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student): I’ve found working remotely has been both challenging and rewarding. I definitely appreciate the opportunity to spend more time with family now, so remote work has definitely been rewarding in that sense. However, there is no longer a strict boundary (such as a commute) between work and home. I’ve found that this allows me to work much longer hours than I originally anticipate. Some tricks I use to manage this challenge are switching chairs or rooms when moving on to a new task (e.g., courses vs. lab work) and setting a strict stopping point at the end of the day.
Emily (1st-year school psychology Masters student): With working from home, I have come to realize how easily distracted I can be, even by the smallest things. To help improve my productivity I have found it best to try and eliminate my biggest distraction: my phone. Turning my phone on silent and keeping it out of sight so I don’t see notifications popping up has helped me to stay focused. Another trick I have found to be helpful is scheduling my most important tasks to be done while my daughter naps. Giving myself that time restriction, and creating a goal to finish it before she wakes up, has really helped me to stay motivated and be productive.
Kristen E (2nd-year undergraduate RA): On certain days, the pandemic has made me feel as though I have all the time in the world, and that I can push things off until tomorrow. Giving myself deadlines for projects, assignments, and homework has helped me keep more of a schedule to hold myself accountable for completing work. Sticking to a schedule of action for each day has really helped me not only to stay productive throughout the day, but also to assure myself that I am staying on track with all my work. I have found that assigning a day of the week for specific kinds of tasks has made it much easier to keep track of what is done and helps create a general sense of how much more work is required by the end of the week so I can plan accordingly.
Megan (1st-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student): I have realized while working from home that I have not been getting as much movement/activity in as I would if I were on campus, which has resulted in feeling fatigued after sitting at my table all day doing work. Lately I have been making it a point to set time during the evening to workout, and I added a setting on my Fitbit that reminds me to get up a move around during the day. I found that by getting in small bursts of movement throughout the day and setting time aside for exercise, I have felt more energized, which has helped me become more productive with research/coursework.
Heather (4th-year undergraduate RA): I love working from home, but I do find that I am sitting more and not breaking up my day with other activities as much as I used to. I have a timer on my Apple Watch that I work with now to remind myself to get up, stretch, and do breathing exercises. This helps keep my muscles from stiffening up, especially my hips. Plus it helps with correcting my posture. It has been nice to reset and refresh. When the weather permits I also make sure I have the windows open a bit for air circulation. However, it has been quite cold lately so I will change rooms in the house to sit in the sun while I work. Being in the sun has helped me with my mood, which helps me stay on track with my projects and classes. I would say the biggest challenge I have from working at home is that I feel like I have more time and have actually given myself more projects and work to do. It is definitely challenging my time management skills. Breaking my day up with sun, fresh air, and physical activity keeps positive and constructive.
Bernard (4th-year undergraduate RA): Working from home is great, but there are a lot of downsides to it. The biggest roadblock in my productivity are all the little distractions that occur, such as people checking in on me during work or any notifications I get through my phone/computer. Before all this, it was easy to focus on work and stay productive because there was a transition from home to work, but now not so much. So what I’ve been doing to help this is bring that transition back. Before I go focus on work I make sure to move my laptop from my room to my workstation, dress nice, and silence my phone as well as put it in an inconvenient spot to get to; for example, in another room. This helps me to minimize distractions as well as focus on work.
Kristen P (3rd-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student): One of the most significant barriers for my productivity thus far during the pandemic restrictions has been maintaining structure for the various work responsibilities and those in my personal life. Before COVID-19, I trained myself to associate certain environmental cues with the tasks I should be doing. For example, the majority of research was done in the lab, all treatment notes and planning were done in the clinic. Tasks were compartmentalized, and above all I required social stimuli to keep myself accountable. Since the beginning of working from home, I have to put much more effort into maintaining structure and social accountability. This initially looked like trial and error, but have found a few core things to work: using my calendar more intentionally (adding activities including exercise, cooking, sending emails), setting certain places of my home as work areas, and planning Zoom work sessions to keep socially accountable.
Samuel (4th-year undergraduate RA): Working from home has been an exciting new experience! While working from home I don’t have to worry about the commute to work and I get to work in the comfort of my own home. This has many benefits, but it has its drawbacks. I find it very easy to lose focus and once I lose my focus, I find it very hard to get it back. To help myself stay focused I came up with a few methods and one of these methods is setting hourly goals. This helps me stay on task and gives me something to work towards to keep me moving in the right direction. Another method I came up with is after I finish my hourly goals, I reward myself with a walk around my house just to stretch my legs. Having a goal and rewarding myself when I complete it helps me stay focused and motivates me to complete my next hourly goal.
Cole (postdoctoral fellow/lab manager): Distractions are hard to avoid while working at home around my young daughter. Communication with my spouse has really helped with productivity. Things like putting meetings on the calendar on our fridge keeps us both in the loop about my work schedule, which also helps with planning brief breaks to stretch my legs, change a diaper, check my phone, etc. I also have a dedicated space for work (no non-work allowed) and avoid working elsewhere in my home. Associating that space with work helps me shift my focus to work-related items more easily when starting the day or returning from a break.
Dr. Dani (lab director): I always avoided working from home, for the reasons that others have outlined here – too many distractions, like wanting to play with my cats instead of focus. But I’m lucky to have a home office, and working from home has given me justification to upgrade to ergonomically supportive furniture and computing tools. More importantly, as the faculty mentor and director for the CHASE lab, I think a lot about setting appropriate and reasonable expectations. How do we define “productivity” under these ongoing circumstances, and what should our expectations be for progress on our work? How can we gently push everyone to accomplish their goals while not adding undue pressure? I certainly haven’t figured it out yet, but the team has done an amazing job over the past year, and I’m so impressed with their commitment and creativity. Keeping my fingers crossed that it will be safe to have an in-person gathering to celebrate the end of an unusual and exciting academic year.
It’s been a busy and difficult year, so it’s especially important that we recognize and celebrate our hard work and accomplishments. Here is a summary of our group’s activities for the year:
In addition, members passed important milestones in their training:
Cole Ainsworth (Postdoctoral Fellow) took over as lab manager and taught his first online courses.
Kristen Pasko (3rd-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) successfully defended her Master’s thesis and received her M.A. degree. She also submitted her findings as an abstract to the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s virtual annual meeting (SBM) a submitted a separate, first-authored manuscript for publication.
Laura Travers (2nd-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) successfully proposed her Master’s thesis and submitted a first-authored abstract to SBM.
Megan Brown (1st-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) transitioned from research coordinator/lab manager to graduate student. She also received approval for her first-year research project and submitted a first-authored abstract to SBM.
Emily Vendetta (1st-Year School Psychology Master’s Student) transitioned from undergraduate to graduate research assistant and used her CHASE Lab experience to design a strong research proposal for a class.
Bernard Kwiatek (Senior Undergraduate Research Assistant) determined his desired career path and started planning for graduate training in mental health counseling.
Heather Mulvenna and Sam Hart (Senior Undergraduate Work Study Students) became invaluable assets to the CHASE Lab and started planning for their next steps.
Finally, Dr. Dani Arigo (Lab Director) received a Short-Term Research Travel Grant from the Humboldt Centre of International Excellence to conduct a collaborative project with a host at the University of Bayreuth in Germany (Dr. Laura König). Public safety conditions permitting, she will travel to Bayreuth to work on this project in Summer 2021.
Note: This post features a discussion about the association between social comparison and physical activity. If you are new to this topic or would like an in-depth overview, please read our previous posts on social comparison and its influences on health behaviors. Briefly, when we compare something about ourselves to that of another person, we’re making a social comparison. Take exercise, for example. We might make a comparison based on minutes of exercise between us and them. Further, we could compare ourselves to someone doing better (upward) or worse (downward) with exercise minutes. Past research has shown social comparison to be important for understanding changes in physical activity. However, more research is needed to understand how we can use social comparison to guide a person toward greater physical activity behavior–a key focus of this post and our paper.
One challenge to being physically active is that even when we set intentions to exercise, it’s difficult to follow through. This is called the “intention-behavior gap.” Though existing studies have shown that some people are better at the follow-through than others, and have smaller (or no) gaps between their exercise intentions and behavior. It’s possible that learning more about the people who don’t follow through could help us design and adapt exercise interventions to be more effective for them. For our most recent paper, our now in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we wanted to know whether a person’s social comparison tendencies or their perceptions of social support affect the link between their physical activity intentions and actual behaviors. For example, it’s possible that people who make comparisons more often or generally feel more supported by close others and have more confidence in their ability to follow through on their intentions, relative to people who are lower in these characteristics. This may be especially true for college women, as social experiences are more strongly connected to their health behaviors than in other groups.
We selected this topic because:
Women are generally less active than men, especially in college, and may face additional challenges in meeting their physical activity intentions.
Both social comparison and social support have been linked to health behaviors like physical activity, but their influences on the intention-behavior gap have rarely been studied.
What Were Our Research Questions and Expected Outcomes?
Question #1 First, we wanted to know more about college women’s exercise intentions (e.g., how often they were set) and behaviors (i.e., minutes in moderate + vigorous intensity activity). We selected women who were not already meeting exercise guidelines for health, to understand whether the intention-behavior gap was common for them. Based on existing evidence, we expected poor or moderate follow-through with exercise intentions.
Question #2 Second, we wanted to know whether college women’s perceptions of their social comparisons or social support is related to their intention-behavior gap. We expected that greater social comparison and support would reduce the gap.
What Did We Do?
We conducted a 7-day observational study among 80 women students at a university in northeastern Pennsylvania (USA). Essentially, this design means that participants are asked to go about their normal activities while wearing monitors and responding to questions about their recent experiences; they didn’t participate in an intervention program or receive an experimental manipulation. Women interested in participation completed an initial online survey about demographics, social comparison, and social support. We reviewed responses and invited women to the study based on our eligibility criteria:
No experience with wrist-worn/smartphone-based physical activity monitors
2nd-year student or above (to avoid effects from the transition to college)
After attending a face-to-face orientation, we asked each participant to use an electronic diary to report daily exercise intentions and wear a Fitbit to monitor their exercise behavior for 7 days.
What Did We Find?
Exercise intentions were set on 36% of days – an average of 2-3 days a week, per person.
On days with set intentions, the average intention was 41 minutes of moderate + vigorous activity.
Based on Fitbit records, 26 minutes a day were spent in exercise, on average.
Minutes of exercise varied in participants from day to day.
Participants got about 12 more minutes of exercise on days with set intentions, versus those without; this difference was not statistically significant.
Social support did not affect the intention-behavior gap, but overall social comparison tendency did (i.e., greater interest in social comparison reduced the gap between intention and behavior).
The tendency to make downward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as worse-off) also reduced the gap, but the tendency to make upward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as better-off) had no effect.
What Does This Tell Us?
Unsurprisingly, low-active college women often do not set intentions to exercise. When they do set intentions, their increase in exercise is typically small and does not fulfill their intentions. This suggests a noticeable gap between college women’s exercise intentions and behavior. Social support was not linked to improvements in the intention-behavior gap, but social comparison was. Specifically, downward comparisons appear to help reduce the gap. In the future, targeting social comparison processes may improve the intention-behavior gap and reduce physical activity differences between women and men. This could help to improve women’s health during college and across the lifespan.
What Was it Like to Work on This Study?
“Dr. Arigo gave me the opportunity to learn about the research process from start to finish in the Clinical Health Psychology Lab at the University of Scranton. Through project CHASE, I had the ability to assist with participant recruitment, enrollment, technology troubleshooting, data collection, and finally manuscript writing. This broad skill set has strengthened my current research in medical school. Although writing a manuscript was intimidating, I learned how to write academically with the assistance of Leah Schumacher, Dr. Arigo, and Cole Ainsworth. It was great seeing the scientific process from start to finish, culminating in great results. I’m so proud to be a member of this team of researchers!”
Coco Thomas, Medical Student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
”I joined this project after the study had finished, as our team was preparing to write the paper. This topic was new to me, so it was a challenge at times to understand the ‘big picture’ of our results–how they fit into the existing literature and what value they provide. However, having a fresh perspective helped ensure that we didn’t gloss over any details needed for readers to fully grasp what this study was about. As a whole, this project is yet another example of the CHASE Lab’s dedication to improving women’s health, and it has been a pleasure working as part of that team.”
Dr. Cole Ainsworth, Postdoctoral Fellow with the CHASE Lab, Rowan University
“This project was a lot of fun to work on and was a true collaborative effort. The project team spanned institutions, experience levels, and disciplines. Over the course of working on the paper, I think that every single one of us also transitioned into a new professional role: Dr. Ainsworth and I started postdoctoral fellowships, Coco began medical school, and Dr. Arigo moved to a new institution. While this meant that progress was a bit slower at times and that the four of us never met together in a physical room, it was a real pleasure to work with such a fantastic group of people and to work so effectively as a team to get this project across the finish line. I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to work on this project and hope to work on many more projects together in the future!”
Dr. Leah Schumacher, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Alpert Medical School, Brown University
I’ve been interested in the physical activity intention-behavior gap for a while, and always wanted an opportunity to study whether social comparison or social support were associated with this phenomenon. That wasn’t one of the original intentions of data collection, but that’s what’s great about secondary analyses – you already have the data and you can ask new questions. Like the rest of our team, I had a great experience working on this paper and I’m so impressed with everyone’s commitment to seeing it come together.
Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director
What Comes Next?
We’re pleased to be working with a team from UNC Greensboro to dig deeper into the physical activity intention-behavior gap. This time, we’re looking at it among women in midlife (ages 40-60) using smaller time blocks – chunks of 2-3 hours, rather than full days. Stay tuned!
It’s been a while since we posted, and we wanted to share some of the research activities we’ve been working on and what we’ve been learning about this fall. See here for more about our team and visit the linked pages below to read interviews with specific team members.(No link for a particular person? Stay tuned for upcoming interviews with them!)
So what have we been up to this fall?
COLE (Postdoctoral Fellow/Lab Manager): I’ve been preparing research materials for a new project on midlife adults’ responses to physical activity messages. I’ve also monitored the completion of an online survey about perceptions of social media among adults with type 1 diabetes, and I’ve been developing a blog post and infographic for our soon-to-be published study on the physical activity intentions of college women. These recent activities contribute to my goal of strengthening my skills related to project management and science communication.
HEATHER (Work Study Student/Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have been searching and compiling research articles using online databases, which has allowed me practice techniques I learned in a previous research methods course (e.g., keyword combination). Developing this skill has allowed me to better contribute to the CHASE Lab’s projects and will help me with my own future research. It has also exposed me to a variety of study designs and helped me learn about different approaches to answering research questions. I have also become more familiar with the style of academic writing, which will be useful when writing my own papers during graduate school and beyond.
LAURA (2nd-Year Ph.D. Student): I am working on my thesis project, which examines relations between PTSD and pain among older adults. I am also in the very beginning stages of an additional project about the connection between pain and social comparison. Hopefully, there is more to come as the year progresses, but I’ve been learning strategies that have helped with my scientific writing (such as outlining for structure, task prioritization, and how to consolidate feedback from multiple people).
BERNARD (Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have been searching for and reading articles about text messaging and physical activity, to help direct a related study we’re preparing for. I’ve also spent time brainstorming new messages that can be used in an app or website to motivate others to be more physically active.
KRISTEN (3rd-Year Ph.D. Student): I recently revisited a project that examines associations between social media platform use and health behaviors of college students, and we just submitted the manuscript for publication. I’ve also been preparing for a related project that is a candidate for my dissertation, focused on developing a self report measure of social media use for clinical settings.
SAM (Work Study Student/Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have learned so much working with the CHASE Lab this semester, such as how to navigate different online databases like Google Scholar and ProQuest to find relevant research papers and extract information from them. I have also learned ways to use that information to develop materials for studies we are planning in the lab. Being able to meet and talk with people at different stages of their careers has given me a better understanding of how to prepare for graduate school.
MEGAN (1st-Year Ph.D. Student): I’ve been working on my thesis proposal, which I will present during my first year as a Ph.D. student. The study will examine the relation between social physique anxiety (or anxiety about having one’s body evaluated by others) and physical activity among women at risk for cardiovascular disease. I will also explore other factors that influence this relation. Throughout my time developing and writing this proposal, I have learned new skills which have helped strengthen my scientific writing.
EMILY (1st-Year Masters Student): Lately I’ve been brainstorming content for a tool that will support physical activity engagement for inactive midlife adults. I also have been reviewing research on text message interventions to help promote physical activity. My time in the lab reviewing and learning more about research has helped prepare me for my Masters program. I feel confident in my classes this Fall knowing how to find quality, well-written research articles for my papers.
Megan was the CHASE Lab research coordinator from 2018-2020. She is now a first-year Ph.D. student in Rowan’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program and a graduate research assistant with the CHASE Lab.She was interviewed by second-year Ph.D. student Laura Travers.
Rowan CHASE Lab: Let’s start off with a broad question. When did you first know you wanted to focus on the field of psychology?
MB: Well, I was actually a biology major my first year of my undergraduate career here at Rowan. I really just didn’t feel passionate about it, and it wasn’t until I took a course in the essentials of psychology that I started to become interested in the field. Then, after I took my research methods course, I realized that I wanted to pursue the psychology field through research. I decided to switch to a B.S. in psychological science and minor in neuroscience. This training led me to the position of research coordinator in the CHASE Lab. Being a research coordinator really solidified my desire to continue to pursue research in psychology and apply to the Ph.D. Clinical Psychology program at Rowan.
Rowan CHASE Lab: What made you choose to work with CHASE lab and to have Dr. Arigo as your mentor?
MB: I chose to apply to the CHASE lab because my research interests (looking at relations between mental and physical health) aligned extremely well to the research being done in this lab. Having firsthand experience while being a part of the CHASE group also helped me realize how well I worked with everyone in the lab, and how much I enjoyed and valued Dr. Arigo’s mentoring style.
Rowan CHASE Lab: How has the transition from CHASE Lab research coordinator to first-year Ph.D. student been so far?
MB: Well due to COVID-19, all of our courses are currently online, so the first week was spent getting adjusted to a new style of learning. However, being a research coordinator helped hone my time management skills, which I am definitely using now. I’m still getting used to my new role as a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant rather than a coordinator, but I’m sure I will get into the hang of things as the semester progresses.
Rowan CHASE Lab: Could you tell us about your research experience so far? What do you think has helped you be a good researcher?
MB: One positive aspect of being a research coordinator for the past two years is that I’ve been exposed to multiple research projects, which used different designs and implementation strategies. I have also been able to develop informal clinical skills, contribute to writing papers, and collaborate with colleagues and peers. And as I mentioned, I really do think that developing time management skills has helped me be a good researcher. Another skill that has helped is having experience communicating with people in various positions and roles both within and outside of the lab (e.g., participants, physicians, faculty, etc.).
Rowan CHASE Lab: What are your current research interests? Have they changed now that you have entered the Ph.D. program?
MB: Since starting with the CHASE Lab two years ago, my research interests have changed a bit. When I began, I was much more focused on mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Then I found interest in health behaviors (e.g., physical activity engagement), and my research interests now include the etiology and treatment of stress and anxiety. I also have interests in the impact of social influences and interactions on body image and health behaviors, as well as the implementation of mindfulness-based interventions and integrated health care. Currently, I am looking at the relation between social physique anxiety and physical activity patterns among midlife women at risk for cardiovascular disease.
Rowan CHASE Lab: What are some goals you have for yourself for your first year as a Ph.D. student with the CHASE lab?
MB: My goals for this year are in the domain of professional development, such as increasing networking and becoming more comfortable with public speaking. I also would like to continue contributing to team projects and papers, and I look forward to working with Dr. Arigo on developing my analytical and research skills.
If you’ve read our previous posts, you know that our recent work has focused on social comparison, physical activity, and women’s health. Ultimately, this work is intended to help us design treatment programs that will promote physical activity and improve other physical and emotional health outcomes. But we’re also interested in how factors such as gender and pre-treatment health experiences can help us target existing, effective treatments to the right people. Our most recent publication, in Journal of Health Psychology, focuses on this topic; specifically, identifying pre-treatment characteristics that predict outcomes after the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.
What is MBSR?
Mindfulness, or non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, is positively associated with a number of health outcomes. MBSR is an 8-week program that teaches participants about the influence of mindfulness on stress and health, guides mindfulness meditation practice, and facilitates group discussion. The program also includes a full day of meditation (seven hours) following the sixth week of the program. Participants are expected to continue meditation outside of class, as well as to practice mindfulness during daily activities (such as eating and communication with others). Given the overlapping research interests of the Mindfulness, Stress & Health Lab and CHASE Lab, such as identifying ways to improve mind-body health, we teamed up on this paper with the goal of better understanding the characteristics that predict who benefits most from mindfulness training.
What did we do?
We conducted a secondary analysis on data from an existing project. Our goal was to examine whether baseline anxiety, sleep quality, or gender could predict change in two different outcomes, from before to after participating in MBSR. The first outcome was emotion regulation, which is how an individual controls (or regulates) their emotions. Two emotion regulation techniques we examined were emotion suppression (a way to manage your feelings by essentially muting them) and cognitive reappraisal (changing your thinking to change how you feel). The second outcome was physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and fatigue. For this paper, we chose to include only the people who completed both the pre- and post-treatment questionnaires (203 participants).
What did we find?
We found improvements in both of our outcomes from pre- to post-treatment among both men and women, with men showing greater improvement in emotion suppression than women. In other words, when it came to emotion suppression, men benefited the most from the MBSR program by showing a bigger drop in suppressing their emotions from the beginning to the end of the program. In addition, people who started the program with higher levels of anxiety and worse sleep quality actually saw the most improvement in physical symptoms of stress. Those who started with higher anxiety also showed greater improvements in cognitive reappraisal. Overall, it appeared that men, individuals with high anxiety, and those with poor sleep quality ended up benefiting the most from the MBSR program.
What does this tell us?
Our findings suggest that evaluating baseline characteristics may be an important first step in identifying who can benefit the most from mindfulness training. This information may help clinicians refer people to MBSR who have a high likelihood of benefiting from it, and steer other people toward different treatments.
What was it like to work on this paper?
Dr. Greeson and I started developing the idea for this paper back in 2018, when I graduated from Rowan. I took a health psychology class with Dr. Greeson as an undergraduate and loved the topics we learned, especially the introduction to mindfulness. During a meeting with Dr. Greeson we discussed my interest in research and mindfulness, and that is where the idea of this paper began Then, once I began working for Dr. Arigo in the CHASE Lab in 2018, we were able to identify a direction we could take the paper that overlapped with all of our interests, so Drs. Arigo, Greeson and I decided to work together as co-authors.
Writing this paper as first-author was intimidating, but also a huge learning experience for me. I could not have asked for better mentors to help guide me through this process, and both Drs. Arigo and Greeson have taught me so much when it comes to developing and taking the lead on a paper. I also appreciated the collaborations we had with the co-authors on this brief report (at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh), and how everyone was able to contribute information based on their own expertise. Overall, we saw this paper evolve from an idea, to a conference presentation, and now to a brief report in the Journal of Health Psychology, which is an exciting accomplishment.
– Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Research Coordinator
This project is a great example of cooperation between research groups to learn from an existing dataset. It’s not easy to manage a project with so many contributors, and Megan did a great job with guidance from us. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with and learn from the Mindfulness Lab and I hope that this is the start of a long-term partnership.
– Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director
As a professor, researcher, and mentor, you always want to support bright, eager students who show interest and initiative. Megan was one of the top students in my Health Psychology class her senior year, and I knew she had the aptitude for graduate school. Working on this paper together, in partnership with Dr. Arigo, Megan was able to grow as a scholar, to develop her scientific writing, and to integrate feedback from collaborators across Psychology and Medicine. Perfect preparation for a PhD program!*
– Dr. Jeff Greeson, Mindfulness Lab Director
For this paper, we focused on whether pre-treatment characteristics predict outcomes after a standard MBSR program. While there is plenty of evidence that mindfulness training can reduce stress and enhance mental health, far less is known about the impact of mindfulness training on objective measures of physical health (like obesity, blood pressure, or blood sugar), or, whether mindfulness training benefits diverse groups of people. Future research is needed to not only identify factors that best predict outcomes of mindfulness training, but to also directly compare how helpful mindfulness programs are for different types of people, facing different types of stressors. New, adapted Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) aim to go beyond the general MBSR program and target specific symptoms or conditions like depression, chronic pain, and heart disease. This raises an important, ongoing question about “What works best, for whom, and why?” By studying predictors of outcomes – in addition to outcomes per se – we can better tailor existing mindfulness programs, increase access, and improve outcomes for as broad a group of people as possible.
On May 14th, UConn’s Center for mHealth and Social Media hosted a virtual version of it’s annual conference. This year’s theme was “Building an Evidence Base for Commercially Available Technology,” a topic that our group has some experience with (see here for an example). Sessions took place on the Center’s site and on Zoom, and several presenters incorporated interactive elements using Slido (polls, Q&A). Instead of poster sessions – and instead of making traditionally formatted posters available electronically – presenters were asked to create 1-minute video summaries of their studies.
Our group had three “posters” at the conference this year. Check out what our presenters had to say about the experience of conceptualizing and creating a short video – and watch their videos at the links below:
Kristen: Overall, I really enjoyed pushing myself to be creative in this process. I was excited to see that the video posters were intended to have language more suited for a lay audience. This language, coupled with the visually-driven format could be a great opportunity for dissemination to a wider audience and the general public. Looking back on my process creating the video poster, my goal was to take advantage of the expanded format options. I had seen some YouTube videos titled “Draw My Life” in which individuals took out a white board and markers and drew scenes illustrating key moments in their life. I really enjoyed the simplicity of this video format and wondered if anyone had ever created a “Draw My Research” video before. Thinking that it might be worth a try, I drew some preliminary sketches that were paired with a script and asked for feedback from my labmates. Once I knew that the sketches made sense with the accompanying lines of script, I practiced drawing the designs on a whiteboard while recording video. This allowed me to ensure that the designs could be drawn sufficiently and sped up to fit into the 1-minute timeframe. Next, I had to create a makeshift tripod using items in my house (asI don’t have video recording equipment) and record the video. Lastly, I downloaded the video so that I could fast-forward and trim, overlay audio, and use additional software to add captions. Though this was not my first experience with video-editing software, there was much I had to learn along the way and I enjoyed doing it. Arigo, D., Pasko, K.P., Brown, M.M., Vendetta, E., Travers, L., Gupta, A.A., Ainsworth, M.C., Symons Downs, D., & Smyth, J.M. (2020, May). Daily Social Influences on Physical Activity among Midlife Women with CVD Risk: An Ecological Momentary Assessment Study. Poster presented at the 2020 annual meeting of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media (virtual).
In addition to Megan, Kristen, and Cole, Laura and Dr. Dani Arigo also attended the conference. Here are some of our reflections on the experience as a whole:
Laura: Attending a conference virtually was definitely interesting. I enjoyed being able to interact with polls and questions throughout the presentations, and having the ability to pose questions during the Q&As at the end. I had been worried it was going to sound robotic during the Q&A, especially if questions were just answered from a screen, so the fact that they included a designated speaker/host was wonderful! The biggest difficulty I had was sitting for such a long period of time. I had to make sure I got up and walked around between presenters, either around the house or a quick break outside (I didn’t realize how much I appreciated walking to different rooms during an in-person conference until now!) Overall it was a great experience and I believe they did a fantastic job!
Dani: This conference was a model for what all virtual professional meetings should be – extremely well-run by people who understand technology and how to use it to engage attendees remotely. I loved the interactions using Slido and the integration of Zoom interactive sessions when appropriate. I also attended all three post-conference workshops (Research Designs for Testing Commercially Available Technology, Introduction to Social Network Analysis, and How To Write an Effective Seed Grant) and benefitted from each one in a different way. Although there are advantages to face-to-face meetings that virtual formats can’t yet replicate, it’s friendly to the wallet AND the environment to avoid flying and driving to meet in person. I would definitely attend a virtual conference again, if it were organized like this.
Cole: I enjoyed the virtual conference format. Although it was less interactive than a traditional in-person conference, I found the Slido Q&A and polling functions very useful. It also helped to have a Slack chat open with other CHASE lab members, so we could stay connected during the presentations. The ability to screenshot slides definitely beats hurried notetaking, too!
Megan: A virtual conference was new for me (as I’m sure it was for many people attending), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I think having been able to interact with people and presenters in person would have allowed for more opportunities to ask questions, I did enjoy this experience! I liked that I was able to tune in for so many great talks, which I know probably would have been hard to do in person. Even though the poster videos were brief, I thought it was neat seeing how other presenters used this opportunity to disseminate their research in creative ways!
Kristen: I was surprised to enjoy the virtual conference as much as I did! Of course there were a few times that technology did not want to cooperate, and I did not get to experience one of my favorite parts of research conferences (speaking to others who are interested in similar research topics and generating new ideas), though the poll feature and general interactive nature of the conference still allowed for an exciting dialogue. Specifically, I enjoyed learning more recent evidence on the active ingredients in behavior change within apps.
Did you attend UConn or another virtual conference this year? Let us know your thoughts!
Like most academic research groups, we’re working from home these days to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We’re really lucky to be able to continue much of our work from home, and this transition has come with some unique opportunities and challenges. In this post, we share some of what we’re working on lately, and how we’re coping with being away from campus.
Ongoing Research and Response to COVID-19
Our primary ongoing research study, Project WHADE, requires that we meet with participants face-to-face (to take measurements, calibrate physical activity monitors, and get the monitors back when participation is over). For women who were actively participating when Rowan’s campus closed, we were able to set up a mail-in system to get the monitor back, and we conducted exit interviews via phone. But we had to pause recruitment and enrollment of new participants, as the patterns we’re studying are likely to look really different now than they did before March. We hope to start up again over the summer.
Yet, we see this as a unique opportunity to understand more about our patterns of interest. We think they’ve changed, but we won’t know how much or in what ways unless we re-assess them. We’re in the process of inviting previous participants to enroll in “Part 2,” which re-uses remote survey technology to capture daily experiences. We won’t have activity monitor data, but we’re hoping to learn as much as we can about how COVID-19 precautions have affected our participants’s daily lives. Stay tuned for more about this new venture!
In the meantime, we’re doing tons of behind-the-scenes work:
Searching and summarizing existing literature on topics of interest
Drafting professional articles to describe our recent findings
Doing our best to stay healthy and sane
Rowan uses the WebEx platform for virtual meetings, and we’re using these to stay connected. We still have our weekly lab meeting and regular individual meetings with Dr. Arigo, weekly or as needed. For times when we want some company while working on projects, we’ll set up WebEx meetings, allowing us to virtually work alongside each other.
Slack is another tool that we use a lot. It’s a chat platform that allows for communication between individuals and groups, and you can create “channels” for specific topics. Slack gives us the opportunity to ask each other questions and receive answers quickly, and to create various channels where members can share updates about life and work, as well as anything that might help us all stay motivated and upbeat.
What We’re Reading
For multiple projects related to health among midlife and older adults, including Project WHADE and several lines of inquiry from RowanSOM’s ORANJ BOWL study, we’re reading about physical activity, weight change, pain experiences, and social support in this population:
As clinical health psychology/behavioral medicine professionals (in training), we’re trying to practice what we preach to get us through this difficult time. Our most effective methods so far:
Kristen: Working on remote tasks outside when the weather allows, getting in a Facebook Live workout whenever I can, virtual game nights with friends, and spending time with/helping out family while I’m temporarily back in Pennsylvania.
Megan: FaceTiming with friends and family, online workouts (3-5 times a week), teaching myself yoga, and starting a new show on Netflix (Outlander).
Bernard: Talking and playing videogames with friends online, trying out new things like baking, and reorganizing my entire Spotify playlist and finding new types of music to enjoy.
Dr. Arigo: Running outside 3-4 times per week (and walking other days), virtual yoga classes, spending time with my cats, re-watching every season of The Great British Baking Show, and reading for fun (when I’m up to it). (Dani’s personal reading list: The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson.)
Laura: Beginning a morning mindfulness practice, creating a family “Must See” movie list (randomly choosing a title from a jar each week), talking with friends and family either on the phone or FaceTime, getting outside between work tasks.
Emily: Working out every morning (even if it’s just a quick, 20-minute workout), going for walks and spending time with my 3-month old, watching new shows at night (recently finished Money Heist and Ozark on Netflix).
Let us know how you’re staying in touch and staying sane these days – we’re always looking for tips!