Are you feeling more fit these days? If so, you can possibly thank the recession. So posits Chris Ruhm, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, whose research shows that a deteriorating economy inspires people to improve their health. Ruhm, who has studied economic downturns for 20 years, explains why hard times can actually be good for you.
We're in an economy where McDonald's is thriving, while higher-priced eateries are being thinned from the herd. So how is it that a downturn can have a positive effect on our health?
People actually eat healthier, overall, during a recession, and they are less likely to be obese. It may be that they eat more frequently at fast-food places than they do at expensive restaurants — our evidence on diet is pretty limited — but they are eating out less frequently. At restaurants, they tend to choose fatty foods.
Getting laid off is hardly energizing, so aren't people exercising less?
Overall, people exercise more when times are bad. Partly, that's because they now have the time to take a run in the park. When you feel powerless, you want to control other pieces of your life, so you take steps to get healthier. A one percent increase in the unemployment rate reduces mortality rates by half a percent. Heart attacks decrease by slightly less than half a percent. Traffic deaths decline by 3 percent because fewer people are commuting and drinking is down. There are fewer smokers, too, which will have a big impact on mortality rates in the long term.
Does this mean that when the economy is robust, we work ourselves to death?
People are more likely to die of heart attacks on a Monday morning than at any other time, which suggests a connection to work. In a recession, deaths from flu and pneumonia go down, as do cases of acute medical conditions like back problems. Some of these are stress-related.
Not to be morbid, but don't suicide rates spike?
If you study death certificates, there is pretty clear evidence that as the economy weakens, suicides increase. Various nonpsychotic mental disorders also go up. So we're healthier physically, but not necessarily mentally.
If the economy continues its downward spiral, will we bulk up and become a nation of Jack LaLannes?
Not necessarily. The period I've studied is from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. But this downturn may be different. If we have enormous economic destruction that's worse than anything that has happened in the post—World War II era, then we may see very different effects.
Is it hard for you to study recession data and not feel lousy at the end of the day?
Because of what I do, I am very conscious of how external factors could be affecting my health, so I try to be more proactive about taking care of myself. Certainly my workload is increasing because of budget issues — and because I have to make time to do interviews.