Being out of work is healthy no more

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December 27, 2014 3:45 PM

In recent years, unemployment has resulted in an increase in body weight and a substantial decline in physical activity, a new study concluded.

Being out of work can be advantageous for people’s physical health. Unemployed people have more time to exercise and cook at home, and less money to buy cigarettes or junk food. Studies in the US and Europe have found that when unemployment is high, people lose weight and become healthier. Yet there are signs that the most recent recession might have been different.

In recent years, unemployment has resulted in an increase in body weight and a substantial decline in physical activity, one new study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluded. Another found a significant increase in death by overdosing on painkillers, tied to mental health conditions associated with unemployment. Economists say the differences were largely because the recession’s effects have been so long-lasting.

“There will be indirect costs if people are unemployed for a long time,” said Gregory Colman, an economist at Pace University and an author of the weight gain study. “The difficulties of unemployment don’t disappear automatically once you regain employment.”

Those who are currently unemployed say it has had negative effects on their health. In a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the US, conducted last month, people were more likely than not to say that unemployment had been bad for their health.

They also do not seem to be using their free time to exercise more. About a third each said they exercised more than, less than and the same amount as when they were employed. But 57 per cent said they spent more time doing sedentary activities. Fifteen per cent said they spent less time doing those things.

In the latest recession, many of the jobs lost were in manual labour like construction, so even if unemployed people exercised more, they were not as physically active as they had been at work, said Mr Colman, who did the study with Dhaval Dave of Bentley University.

Because the recovery has not brought significant numbers of new jobs, people may have settled into less healthy behaviours because they assume they will not work again soon, economists found.

Unlike other studies on health and unemployment, this one used longitudinal data, tracking the same people over time. They found that a small increase in exercise, a moderate decrease in smoking and a decline in the purchasing of fast food were offset by a substantial decline in total physical activity. The net result was slight weight gain.

There was significant variation within the data. For example, though smoking decreased over all, it increased for some people, probably because of the stress of unemployment or because many workplaces ban smoking, so people do it more when they are home, they said.

And although fast food consumption declined, it did not necessarily mean people were eating better. People spend more time cooking when unemployed, the American Time Use Survey showed. But they might also resort to less-balanced diets or more cheap, sugary snacks.

– By Claire Cain Miller

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