Data for GOOD Lifestyle

The Surprising Health Benefits of a Bad Economy

by Shoshana Kordova

December 29, 2015

When you consider what you could do to improve your physical health, you probably think about activities you’d make a New Year’s resolution about: Go to the gym more, ride your bike to work, don’t finish the whole pint of Chunky Monkey in one sitting. But there’s something else you probably never imagined could be good for your health in any way—a recession.

Yep, that period around 2008 or so—which you may have spent fretting about finding a job or losing one, or maybe moving back in with your parents—was actually good for the health of the population at large, according to a report by University of Virginia professor Christopher Ruhm that was released in October by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The research uncovered extensive evidence that “health-enhancing activities such as exercise and social interactions increase” during bad economic times, while harmful behaviors decrease, writes Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics. The analysis examines prior research on the subject and uses state- and county-level data from the United States between 1976 and 2013.

An earlier report by Ruhm implied that a single percentage point increase in a state's unemployment rate resulted in a .54 percent decrease in loss of life—in effect, “saving” 13,000 lives. That may be because, as economist Ryan D. Edwards wrote in a 2011 review of American time use, “When unemployment is high, consumers report spending more time sleeping, preparing food and eating or drinking, socializing and relaxing, and using the telephone, while they spend less time working and traveling for work.” 

A 2005 European Journal of Population study examining the link between recessions and life expectancy in Spain during a 17-year period of high unemployment cites several previous studies indicating that when the economy’s in the dumps, people tend to have less work stress, sleep more, and benefit from better immunity, along with a higher chance of beating infectious diseases. They also enjoy a lower risk of injury, partly because there’s less traffic when there are fewer people driving to and from work.

Looking at the flip side (the unhealthy side effects of work), we see that the Mamas & the Papas have a reason to be cryin’ whenever Monday comes: Various studies have shown that much-lamented day to be the weekly peak for cardiac incidents. That may be related to obesity, a health concern whose most significant predictor is long working hours, according to a 2009 study in the journal Industrial Health

In some cases, the key factor determining whether or not people make healthy choices may be the price tag. When the financial crisis hit Iceland in 2008, longitudinal survey data indicated that Icelanders spent less money on unhealthy (and costly) purchases, from indoor tanning sessions to cigarettes and candy. (Though the reverse may be true, as well: Those Icelanders spent less on healthy but pricey goods like fruits and vegetables.)

So if it still seems counterintuitive to view recessions as a good thing, the research does back up some relevant detrimental effects. Depression has been shown to rise with unemployment levels—especially for sectors of the population stricken by poverty before the recession hit. And, as even Ruhm acknowledges, downturns can have a negative impact on individuals and their families, though health may improve population-wide. 

Ultimately, being laid off could potentially make you healthier by giving you more time to sleep, exercise, and socialize. But you might want to consider a more direct way to get those benefits. (Maybe those New Year’s resolutions aren’t such a bad idea after all.)

Illustration by Brian Hurst. Preview image by Flickr user NoHo Damon (cc).

Throughout 2015, we're partnering with Progressive to harness the power of information. Each week, we'll put data under the microscope, asking how statistics and research can empower us to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the ways we navigate our world. Knowledge is the first step on the way to progress: Let's take this information and drive change in the world together. This is Data for GOOD.

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The Surprising Health Benefits of a Bad Economy