Rosa Esmaeilbeigi is channelling her inner Jackson Pollock. Jane Dawkins got herself a new bike. And Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton is assembling jigsaw puzzles and keeping up with her book club.

From exploring hobbies to keeping active to staying mentally relaxed but engaged, ideas for boosting people’s well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic through a University of Guelph virtual project are quickly gaining fans across Canada and worldwide.

The project originated with Jones-Bitton, a population medicine professor who early this year became the inaugural director of well-being programming in U of G’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC).

“We’re helping people to see that, yes, things are different and hard right now with COVID-19, but there are still ways to work around it and engage with well-being activities,” she said.

As of late April, more than 27,000 people from almost 45 countries were following the @OntVetCollege Instagram account for well-being activities and ideas, launched early this spring and promoted through social media.

From Wellness Wednesdays to virtual lunchtime talks, well-being content provided under the project through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other channels has been viewed during COVID-19 lockdown more than 600,000 times. Some 60 per cent of viewers are in Canada, but others hail from abroad, including England, Iran, India and Brazil.

‘It’s not just specifically for veterinarians’

Dr. Andria-Jones-Bitton smiles for the camera
Dr. Andria-Jones-Bitton

“We have a very international audience of people in the veterinary world,” said Jane Dawkins, OVC manager of social media and a project collaborator. “It’s not just specifically for veterinarians. It’s open to the community.”

The COVID-19 well-being initiative grew out of an existing resilience rotation led by Jones-Bitton for fourth-year veterinary medicine students. She invited students in the class to suggest activities as an experiential learning exercise.

Each week, she updates the material, consisting of text as well as illustrations by Alex Sawatzky, a population medicine graduate. A social media team led by Dawkins brainstorms and designs online activities to promote each of eight “domains” of well-being: emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, environmental, social, occupational and financial.

What started as student stress relief has grown into a social media platform for keeping the rest of the world – or at least a small chunk of it – calm during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Jones-Bitton has shared the material with farm groups such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and veterinary schools across Canada and abroad. “Each Wednesday, I share the new domain with my contacts from over 100 agricultural organizations at provincial and federal levels across Canada, who have gone on to share the materials with their membership listserves, management teams and social media,” she said. “I even heard that a school in New Zealand is sharing it.”

Emotional well-being includes practising self-compassion

For emotional well-being, suggested activities included gratitude Ping-Pong (taking turns with a partner to list things that spark gratitude), meditation apps such as Headspace, and setting daily news and media limits. Social well-being included online book and game clubs, and virtual Netflix parties.

Environmental well-being focused on indoor activities such as moving your work and study space to different parts of your home, playing music and decluttering.

For intellectual well-being, the group recommended taking up a hobby, reading, listening to podcasts and taking an online course. That week, Dawkins posted a video showing how to cook a Thai noodle recipe. Earlier, she photographed her two cats to make a cartoon to share.

“In these times, we have to be willing to be weird,” she said. “There’s a sense of fun that brings people together.”

Esmaeilbeigi, a fourth-year DVM student on the committee, said the college wellness initiative is intended to “use our social media platform to get people thinking about what to do at home and thinking about something other than COVID – something fun to relieve stress.”

She’s been practising abstract drip painting and catching up on reading fiction.

“I haven’t read a full book since my first year of undergrad,” she said. “It’s been nice to get back into it.”

For Jones-Bitton, emotional well-being includes practising self-compassion and recognizing that others may be encountering similar feelings about life in a pandemic. She’s been assembling jigsaw puzzles on weekends with coffee in hand, keeping up with a two-decade-old book club, and practising breathing techniques recommended by Kathy Somers, who leads a stress management and high-performance clinic at U of G.

OVC is also running virtual lunchtime talks with experts as a variation on its existing program of in-person sessions. More than 500 people took part in one mid-April talk on pandemic survival skills given by OVC grad and veterinary coach Leann Benedetti.

For more information, including past weekly wellness activities, visit the OVC homepage and click on “Well-Being During COVID-19.”