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Sara’s Diary: Day 4 without baseball

The hidden cost of the COVID-19 sports and recreation shutdown

Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

This morning I woke up to day 4 of being generally confined to a small apartment in Wrigleyville. I’ve been lucky. So far, no one I know has tested positive for the coronavirus and while I’m social distancing, I’ve had the ability to take a walk or two a day to get some fresh air and the occasional cup of coffee. I have everything I need at home (yes, even toilet paper) but getting out of the house for a few minutes is helping my sanity immensely. The world around me is changing rapidly, though. A Starbucks that had been eerily empty days ago is now a grab-and-go location with chairs stacked high and the three lone customers standing as far apart from each other as possible:

A grab-and-go Starbucks in Boystown
Sara Sanchez

As I was leaving today, I got a note from my therapist about the possibility of telesessions for the foreseeable future. I’ve been seeing her for a few years to help manage my anxiety, which I’ve written about here and at Baseball Prospectus in the past year. While telehealth sounds great in theory, it’s actually a lot more complicated than just saying yes to her offer. For starters, no one seems to know if my health insurance covers telehealth sessions, including the person I talked to at Blue Cross Blue Shield. For me it’s a minor annoyance in the face of a global pandemic at the moment. I’m in a good spot generally and will likely be fine even with the overall increase in anxiety from living an a state of heightened awareness. However, it did shine a bright light on something I’ve been thinking about since the NBA suspended their season indefinitely: the impact that the shutdown of sports, recreation and society in general will have on people who are already vulnerable.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health approximately one in five people in the United States deals with some form of mental illness. In other words, in the United States approximately 46.6 million people day-to-day reality includes managing a mental health problem in addition to their everyday responsibilities. For myself, and many other people, sports and recreation are a critical part of self-care. Baseball is my break, my guaranteed three-hour window to focus my energy and attention on something else. It calms my mind down, and while I may get worked up about a Cubs pitcher getting lit up in June or the Cardinals working their devil bird magic to orchestrate a late comeback in September, it’s just a different type of stress than the way my mind normally works.

For millions of people that break is gone.

It’s not just people suffering from diagnosed mental illnesses, either. I was talking to my podcast partner in crime, Andi Cruz Vanecek, about this recently on Cuppa Cubbie Blue. As listeners know she recently lost her father and she expressed a similar amount of dread as she deals with grieving that loss in a world without sports.

And then there are the elderly and infirm. Millions of people who are at the highest risk of complications from COVID-19 who may be dealing with profound loneliness as their loved ones isolate them for their own physical health. These are some of the people who need outreach and human contact the most and the cruelty of the current situation depriving them of that human touch and contact is heartbreaking to me. My grandmother is 86 years old and watches every Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game and every University of Arizona basketball game. While I know my aunt and uncle are taking great care of her in Phoenix, I’m worried about her without those human comforts.

It isn’t just the vulnerable people who love sports. Today I also got a notification from a gym I used to work out at (they never removed me from their mailing list) that they were closing for the rest of March and then would re-evaluate. Exercise is inversely correlated with depression and anxiety - i.e., exercise is its own type of mental health plan. If you’ve ever heard the term “runners’ high” it refers to the boost of endorphins and endocannabinoids (this is not cannabis, people, this is a naturally occurring substance in the body) that the body releases when people run. As this piece from Dr. David J. Linden at Johns Hopkins Medicine states:

The mental benefits don’t stop when you finish your run — regular cardiovascular exercise can spark growth of new blood vessels to nourish the brain. Exercise may also produce new brain cells in certain locations through a process called neurogenesis, which may lead to an overall improvement in brain performance and prevent cognitive decline.

“Exercise has a dramatic antidepressive effect,” says Linden. “It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.”

I still see a lot of my fellow runners taking advantage of the solitary nature of a good long run on the Lakeshore Trail, but who knows how long that will remain an option?

As more and more of the mental health breaks people have built into their lives and wellness are placed on hold we all need to be gentle with each other and recognize the stress we are placing on our minds as we deal with COVID-19 through social distancing.