Lockdown has had surprising health side effects

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As this unprecedented global health crisis comes to the end of its first wave, we can sit back and take stock of the ways the coronavirus has affected our lives. Lockdown has had a marked impact on our social and working lives – 2.6 million people collected unemployment benefits between March and June, and we can all agree that parties are a distant memory at this point – but it may also have affected our physical health, and not just in the obvious way. Here’s a run-down of some of the secondary health impacts of the virus.

Weight gain or loss

With fitness centres closed, thousands of protein-pumping gym rats were left without a real pastime or an outlet for their boundless energy. If you’ve gained weight during lockdown, you’re not alone – one outlet dubs the ubiquitous added pounds the “Quarantine 15”. (Other, less hopeful commentators are invoking the “COVID 19”.) A sedentary lifestyle, time to make endless comfort food, and government orders not to go out unless necessary have brought an increased mass to the masses.

On the other hand, the changed lifestyle of lockdown may have worked in some people’s favour. For those whose life before coronavirus consisted of commuting to the office, sitting at a desk for eight hours, then heading to the pub for a swift four pints, lockdown may have offered an opportunity to devote more time, not less, to exercise. Silky-haired fitness instructor Joe Wicks has won a Guinness World Record for the most viewers on a workout live stream after nearly a million viewers tuned in to tune up with him. Others are taking to the streets and parks in the early morning to implement the NHS’s “couch to 5K” fitness programme. It’s a brave new world for those of us just dipping our toes into the world of exercise.

Quitting smoking

More than a million people have quit smoking during the quarantine period, according to the BBC, the highest rate in over a decade. The organisation Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) has been surveying smokers since 2007, and the 7.6% of its respondents who have given up since June 2019 are the largest percentage in its records to quit. With the possibility that smokers are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, it’s hardly surprising. Reduced access to tobacco and a lack of social smoking opportunities may also have played a role. Let’s hope this trend continues beyond the end of the virus. Relapse rates within the first year hover between 60 and 90 per cent, so it may take some effort for the newly clean to maintain their streak.

Lower use of A&E

While it’s harder to extract a specific health trend from this example, it’s true that visits to A&E have dropped sharply during the virus. In April 2020, visits to minor A&E units fell by 71% compared to their numbers in April 2019. Major A&E units experienced a smaller but still significant decrease, with a drop of 48% between April 2019 and April 2020. While doctors have noted that the prevalence of other infectious diseases such as gastroenteritis has dropped during the virus, they also have concerns that reduced A&E use does not equal lower disease rates overall. In particular, a decreased number using A&E for cardiovascular disease is more likely to indicate reluctance to use health services than an actual drop in heart attacks. If people suffering from real emergency cases are afraid to use A&E, avoidable deaths may occur.

Lower air pollution

Naturally, fewer people are using their cars during lockdown. And with that reduced use has come far lower pollution levels in urban areas. A report by King’s College London’s London Air Quality Network has found that levels of NO2 in the centre of London have dropped by over a half during the coronavirus. But that might not lead to generally cleaner air: NO2 might have dropped due to lower vehicle use, but levels of PM, another pollutant, have risen as people use their ovens more at home. And like most of these health impacts, there are concerns that lower air pollution will be short-lived. As lockdown lifts and we return to some semblance of normal life, here’s hoping that some of the beneficial effects of the coronavirus stay put.

Malin Hay


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