Life as we knew it came to a standstill in the early months of 2020, as it became clear the novel coronavirus sweeping the headlines was, indeed, a global crisis. In the U.S., routines were progressively, yet hastily, upended, as schools, gyms, restaurants and workplaces were shuttered. Suddenly, we were left with just the essentials.
This abrupt shift has no doubt left a profound mark on society, and there are few positives to be ascertained from such a catastrophic event. There are, however, some important lessons to be learned as well as a few habits Americans have picked up that could indicate a post-pandemic silver lining for public health.
We’ve Become More Aware of Our Vulnerabilities
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in 10 Americans has diabetes; of the more than 34 million people living with the disease, the vast majority (around 90–95%) have type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes. In the U.S., heart disease kills one person every 37 seconds, and nearly half of adults have, or are taking medicine for, hypertension.
The implications of these conditions are well known, but we have been made acutely aware of their potential severity in the context of COVID-19. Newly released CDC data found that patients with certain underlying conditions, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, were six times more likely to be hospitalized for, and 12 times more likely to die of, COVID-19.
Chronic disease is a leading, often preventable, cause of premature death, and research has shown that a person’s life expectancy decreases with each additional chronic condition. There are several factors that contribute to these conditions, but weight, diet and exercise have been widely proven to substantially lower a person’s risk, and preventive care plays a critical, yet often neglected, role in early detection and prevention. While this is by no means new information, COVID-19 could be a sobering nudge to take our health more seriously.
We’re Cooking More
One lifestyle change that could be a health-booster is one that many have already adopted — albeit not entirely by choice. As restaurants closed their doors and the safety of takeout and delivery was questionable at the outset, more Americans took to the kitchen. An April 2020 food study by Hunter Public Relations found that 54% of Americans are cooking more and 51% plan to continue cooking more often.
While the results were more or less split on whether respondents were eating healthier or more indulgent foods, the fact that more Americans are cooking is in itself a positive. The simple act of cooking at home yields a diet that is naturally lower in carbohydrates, fat and sugar, according to Julia A. Wolfson, MPP, who authored a study on whether cooking at home was associated with diet quality or weight-loss intention. In addition to helping maintain a healthy weight, the World Health Organization notes that eating less saturated fats, trans fats and salt, combined with sufficient amounts of fruits, vegetables and physical activity, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.
We’re (Ironically) Spending More Time Outdoors
Stay-at-home orders kept all but essential workers home-bound for weeks. When people did venture out to escape cabin fever, there were no restaurants, bars, shopping malls or other social gathering places to provide an antidote. So, we went outside — something we had evidently been doing less and less of up until recent events. As spring brought warmer weather and quarantine restrictions were lifted, the internet was aflutter with images of people swarming parks and beaches.
Whether those swarms were doing more harm than good from a social distancing standpoint is a separate discussion. What we do know is that time spent in nature has myriad health benefits. A substantial body of research has linked nature experience with improved mental health, and a global study from the University of East Anglia found that exposure to greenspace could reduce the risk of several serious conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. If more time outdoors is a lasting effect of the pandemic, it could be a bright spot from an otherwise dark period.
Health Disparities Have Been Thrust into the Spotlight
Crisis often drives change. And in the wake of COVID-19, it is hopeful that many of the systemic shortcomings that have been brought to light will be addressed in a meaningful way. A glaring need for reform can be seen in the virus’ disproportionate effect on communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, as social determinants of health have proven to play a major role in both vulnerability and outcomes. Even many of the actions outlined here are unfeasible for many — accessing nutritious foods, cooking healthy meals and accessing green space, for example. If COVID-19 is, indeed, a wake-up call for healthy living, it must also be a wake-up call for what vulnerable populations need in order to live healthy.