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The surprising health benefits of the coronavirus lockdown

Despite the gloom, there are some flickers of hope for our health as people invest more time and energy in looking after themselves.

We are all worried about our health at the moment. The effects of contracting Covid-19 can be serious and even life-threatening for the most vulnerable. On top of that, coronavirus and lockdown are causing a mental health crisis: any people with conditions like anxiety and OCD are experiencing a flare-up of their symptoms.

Yet despite the gloom, there are some flickers of hope. Coronavirus and the associated lockdown has produced some surprising health benefits as people invest more time and energy looking after themselves. Here are some reasons to be optimistic about the future. 

Less smoking 

The dire effects that Covid-19 can have on the lungs has encouraged 300,000 people to stop smoking and pushed another 550,000 to try and give up the habit, according to research from campaign group Action on Smoking and Health.

If those people quit for good, this lockdown period could have ongoing positive effects on their health in the years to come. The lungs begin to repair themselves almost immediately after you stop smoking, with function increasing up to 10 per cent within nine months, according to the Mayo Clinic. After a year, your risk of heart disease halves; after a decade the chance of getting lung cancer is half of that of a smoker. 

Even the heaviest smokers can see improvement, no matter their age. A hashtag, #QuitForCOVID is mobilising those on social media to give up the habit.

Drinking is down – for some 

With parties, bar trips and long lunches cancelled, many people’s drinking habits have been hugely disturbed. By and large that has been a good thing: only one in five is drinking more often instead, according to research by charity Alcohol Change. 

One in three has completely stopped drinking, or reduced how often they drink since lockdown began, according to their research and one in 20 have become teetotalers.

Although reduced socialising is not necessarily good for us, a break from drinking might be. A month off can lead to reduced blood pressure, fewer headaches, weight loss and improved liver function, according to the Priory Group. 

Stronger communities

Eight out of 10 people say they feel that people are doing more to help each other since lockdown and two-thirds have checked in on a neighbour, according to Statistics. Covid-19 Mutual Aid is an example of this: a nationwide network of volunteers who are giving up time to help out neighbours who are struggling. 

This increased trust in others and sense of community with our neighbours is crucial for our physical and mental health, say experts. “We’re having a mass global wake-up to what really matters”, says Dr Williamson. 

The major relationships in our lives – children, spouses, the closest friends – are the most important for wellbeing, he says. But the smaller relationships matter too, like those with neighbours: a Canadian study from 2014 found that interacting with more acquaintances made people happier and have stronger feelings of belonging. 

“It’s not just core relationships that matter, it’s also the peripheral ones”, says Prof Layard. “People never look at each other in the street but now some people are.” He says that refusing to engage positively with strangers is not a natural way of being. “It’s unknown in rural communities”, he says. “We have a long way to go to restore normal society.”

Exercise

Many have more time than before to exercise. Others are opting to travel on foot or bike to avoid the infection risk of going on public transport.

All of this is adding up to a boom in cycling. There was 300 per cent of normal levels of bicycle traffic in Toronto, Mississauga and Scarborough on April 5, according to analysis from Vivacity Labs.

While there is not yet concrete data about the time spent exercising, there is anecdotal evidence from doctors that people are getting more active. “The majority of people I speak to are doing it, and not just getting out doing exercise but also doing it indoors too, doing online dance, yoga, pilates and exercise classes”, says Dr Mike Holmes, a practising Doctor and vice-chair of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. “The fact people are limited to going out just for exercise is making them do it”, he says.

He says that one patient has even seen their resting heart rate fall by 10 beats a minute after the introduction of more regular exercise. Increased movement could be a lasting positive legacy of lockdown, he says. 

Air pollution

We’re getting in our cars much less than usual as there is no school run or drive to work. This has led to a huge drop in air pollution which has already saved 1,752 lives in the UK, according to research from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide have fallen by 36 per cent and PM10 particulates have dropped by nine per cent compared to this time last year. This has led to fewer premature births, asthma attacks and new cases of asthma, according to the report.

That is not just good news for our physical health, it can also make us happier. Before lockdown, air pollution was putting such a restraint on those that live with heavy air pollution that the loss in their wellbeing was equivalent to 10 per cent of their annual salary, according to research from the Happiness Research Institute, a Danish think tank.

Other infections

With the attention of the world focused on the dreaded Covid-19, it is easy to forget about other infectious diseases. But transmission of influenza almost vanished across Europe between late March and April, while we were sheltered inside our homes, according to EU data and scientists. 

The winter flu season in the northern hemisphere usually runs from October until mid-May, and in bad years it can claim as many lives as have died so far from Covid-19, albeit over a much longer period. But Holger Rabenau, of the Frankfurt University Hospital, says that the European flu season “ended earlier” this year due to social distancing measures employed across the continent, with just 4,000 flu patients requiring intensive care treatment so far, according to data from 11 European countries, around half the number of the previous two seasons. However, some of the drop might be explained by under-reporting, experts say, with more flu patients avoiding hospital this year in case they catch coronavirus.

Healthier food

With restaurants and pubs shuttered across the country, there is little option but to cook most of our meals at home, and there are signs that our diet has improved under lockdown – although some have increased their expenditure on takeaways.

According to a survey of 2,000 adults commissioned by the food manufacturer FLORA, almost one in three say their diets have improved since the beginning of lockdown, with many using more fresh-based produce in their meals and others turning to plant-based alternatives. 

We’re also eating less – a survey by the environmental charity Hubbub found that Canadians have made use of their “lockdown larders” by ignoring best-before dates, cutting down waste, and piling less food onto their plates. More than half (57 percent) said they placed a higher value on food during lockdown, with 43 percent enjoying it more. 

The feeling that you are part of something that is greater than yourself is crucial for your wellbeing, whether it’s a religion, cause or organisation. Although coronavirus is keeping us physically apart, the shared struggle has provided a sense of belonging for some: over 7000 people have signed up to volunteer for the COVID-19 response team; in 3 days, helping to deliver food to those in need.

Sense of purpose

This sense of meaning and purpose is so important that the campaign group Action for Happiness has marked it as one of the 10 key components of a happy life. “A sense of meaning is so important for our wellbeing, but sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us up”, says Dr Mark Williamson, the group’s director.

“There’s a greater spirit of cooperation and common endeavour like I remember after the Second World War”, says Professor Lord Richard Layard, a happiness researcher at the London School of Economics. “I think we could have a much better society out of all of this.”

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