As I tossed two pints of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food frozen yogurt into my cart the other day, it occurred to me that with my 401(k) shrinking and the economic outlook worsening, I shouldn't be spending money on sweets. Admittedly, an extra $9 isn't going to make up for my shrinking nest egg, but it just felt imprudent.
I may not be the only one questioning my less nutritious purchases. Conventional wisdom says we turn to comfort foods and cocoon at home in our jammies when the economy goes south. But research suggests that it may actually be the opposite—that during a downturn, we exercise more and are less likely to be obese than when times are good. Christopher Ruhm, the Jefferson-Pilot Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, has published research indicating that mortality actually decreases when the economy goes temporarily sour and suggesting that a drop in body weight and increase in physical activity—as well as a decline in smoking—are partially responsible. (He uses the unemployment rate as an indication of the economy's weakness.)
One explanation is time. Ever noticed that your friend who is laid off seems to be using some of his downtime to grow abs of steel? Declining work hours, hypothesizes Ruhm, may give us more time to get to the gym or to shop for food rather than ordering take-out or buying prepared meals. Even those of us who still have our jobs might not need to work as hard or as long when business is slower, giving us more time and energy to spend on healthier activities. "I'm not saying this is universally true," Ruhm says. "It's not to say some people aren't incredibly despondent and can't get out of bed."
Income might also play a role, at least as far as food choices go, Ruhm theorizes. Rather than spending the money to go out, we tend to eat in. As I wrote a few months ago, simply avoiding restaurants can help you lose a few pounds.
It's not as clear what a drop in income might do for exercise habits. You could imagine some people omitting the gym membership as a luxury, but many forms of exercise are cheap and likely recessionproof.
So, how do you take advantage of a slump? Well, make good use of your time. If you are anxious about being under- or unemployed, exercise can lift your mood and keep you fit. "Outplacement counselors will tell people to get in shape and to take care of themselves," says Ruhm. "It's one part of your life you have control over." If you're looking to join a gym, bargain—they're likely feeling the pinch, according to this advice to health club owners, and ready to make a deal. Or try a form of exercise that burns calories but is relatively cheap—maybe this is your chance to take up running. And use your food budget wisely. Saving money on dining out means you can buy unprocessed, high-quality ingredients to make food at home and still come out ahead. Here are some tips for saving money at farmers' markets.
One caveat: The trends Ruhm researched are historical. Almost everyone agrees that this time we're on the brink of something worse than usual, so no one can predict how that might influence our health going forward. Also, note that his work on mortality does not mean that mental health improves when times are bad; in fact, it's the opposite. So, with the goal of keeping my mental health intact, I went ahead and bought the Ben & Jerry's.