What if one of the side effects of the SARS-Co-V-2 pandemic was to make some people healthier?
Crazy as it sounds, there is some reason to believe this could be happening. The BBC has fingered COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, as “driving a revolution in travel,” and it’s not to jump on airplanes to see the world.
The English are increasingly getting around on foot or by bicycle. This shift to what is called “active travel” to shops, businesses and jobs has significant health benefits as the BMJ journal has pointed out.
“Up to 90 percent of active commuters walking or cycling have been shown to meet the minimum physical activity guidelines, with evidence of a consequential lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and mortality, all-cause mortality and cancer outcomes,” the editors of the medical journal reported. “Oher benefits include environmental change and improvements in mood and self-esteem.”
And it would appear the English are not the only people that COVID-19 has inspired to get up, get out and get moving.
Strava, the leading sports platform for athletes of all sorts, reports activity uploads to its website jumped 33 percent in 2020. The data for Anchorage shows a cycling boom started in the 49th state’s largest city shortly after the pandemic began.
The start of the jump was likely tied to the Alaska lockdown coming at a time when snow and ice conditions were near ideal for fat-tire rides to the summer inaccessible Knik, Skookum and Spencer glaciers near Anchorage.
Run for your life
The boom didn’t end with the arrival of summer, however. As in the rest of the country, activity remained elevated.
Overall, Strava’s Year in Sport 2020 reported athletic activity in the U.S. up 28 percent above what was expected for March and April, and the boom continued through the summer here and in most countries where people were allowed out of their homes.
“At the global level, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a rise of activity on Strava like we’ve never seen before, far surpassing our normal projections,” the company said.
The health benefits of this change cannot be ignored.
Along with providing some protection against COVID-19 – healthy people have much better chances of surviving the disease than those suffering so-called “comorbidities” – an active lifestyle reduces the odds for all forms of death and cuts U.S. economic costs by billions.
Pre-COVID, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reported “inactivity contributes to one in 10 premature deaths,” and “inadequate levels of physical activity are associated with $117 billion in annual healthcare costs.”
The deaths and costs have only gone up since the arrival of SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic that followed shortly after a November 2019 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine pondering a failed global efforts to attack “the pandemic of physical inactivity.”
That pandemic – what might be characterized as the sit-on-your-ass (SO-YA) pandemic – was first identified by The Lancet, another British medical journal, back in 2012.
A 2018 CDC study later calculated 8.3 percent of the deaths in the U.S. each year can be attributed to inadequate physical activity. More than 2.8 million people per year die in the country, according to the CDC. Eight-point-three percent would equal about 236,000 deaths per year.
COVID-19 was blamed for more than 350,000 deaths in the country in 2020. Alaska has been lucky to largely escape the worst of the pandemic. The Department of Health and Social Services reports 253 deaths since March.
Alaska Division of Public Health researchers who studied those state deaths from 2011 to 2015 concluded that about 800 deaths per year could be attributed to physical inactivity or obesity. Their study was published in the International Journal of Public Health in June 2020.
“We estimated that 4,074 deaths were due to overweight/obesity and physical inactivity; 20.1 percent of all Alaska deaths in 2011–2015, 18.2 percent of deaths among white Alaskans, and 25.9 percent of deaths among Alaska Native people,” they wrote.
The value of exercise has been known for a long time.
“(The) health benefits of adequate physical activities like walking, swimming, cycling, or stair climbing are well documented,” researchers wrote in the peer-reviewed International Journal of General Medicine reported almost a decade ago. “Regular exercise has been shown to reduce type 2 diabetes, some cancers, falls, osteoporotic fractures, and depression. Improvements in physical function and weight management have also been shown. There is also an increase in cognitive function, enhancement of the quality of life, and decrease in mortality.”
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has altered that dynamic. Many people are now working from home. That frees up about an hour per day given an average, American commute time reported to be 26.9 minutes to get to work and the same to go home.
Getting in some exercise is also more convenient at home. Nobody cares if you get up from your computer at noon to walk, run or cycle; return soaked with sweat, and ignore the shower until the day is done. Flexible work hours make it even easier to squeeze in some activity.
(Given Alaska’s short days and a possible link between Vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19, midday would be a good time for your activity.)
About all that remains is the psychological barrier. The idea that doing a lot of nothing is dangerous to your health is counter-intuitive. The television or the computer are entertaining. The potato chips taste good. The beer is going down easy.
What could be wrong? It’s not like the long-running SO-YA pandemic involves some new virus.