When her husband lost his job as a technology and automation specialist, Michelle Morton was forced to find ways to cut back on family expenses. The Raleigh, North Carolina, mother of three boys used the financial setback as an opportunity to choose healthier foods and snacks for her family. “I realized I was spending a lot of money on snacks for my kids that were doing no one any good,” she said.
She trimmed back on pre-packaged snack food, using the money she would have spent on that to make smarter choices like yogurt, cheese sticks and fruit.
“Not only was it helping us health-wise, it was cutting back on our budget as well,” says Morton, saving them roughly $100 a month. Though her husband now has another job, he was forced to take a $20,000 pay cut when he accepted it – so she’s continuing her focus on healthful frugality.
It would seem that those facing financial struggles would spend hours on the couch, munching cheap burgers and fries and drowning their sorrows in alcohol. And no doubt, some do. Fast food sales are up. In August, Burger King Holdings, Inc., reported earnings of $150.6 million, compared to $117.1 million in the same quarter of 2010, a 29 percent improvement.
“As work intensity is reduced, work-related stress declines and you start acting healthier”
But for many people, the recession has had the opposite effect. “There’s strong evidence that people physically are healthier” during recessions, says Christopher J. Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia. His research finds that a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate will reduce mortality by about a half percent. He says that in particular, mortality from heart disease tends to rise during periods of economic expansion, since more people are employed and people tend to work longer during boom times, especially in areas like manufacturing. That contributes to factors that can lead to cardiovascular disease: lack of sleep – leading to stress – and insufficient time to exercise and follow a healthy diet.
As demand decreases in a recession, overtime often isn’t required – allowing more time for leisure activities.
Ryan Edwards, associate professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York, says even though a recession can mean more overtime for some workers, it hasn’t meant an overall increase in hours worked. For example, average weekly hours in manufacturing are still down by 0.25 hours per week, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. “As work intensity is reduced, work-related stress declines and you start acting healthier,” he says.
Ruhm also found that heavy drinking and smoking are also more prevalent when the economy is strong.
Drunk driving is down 30 percent from the last five years; last year’s figures were the lowest in nearly two decades.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says one factor could be people are imbibing alcohol at home instead of paying top dollar at bars, so they’re less likely to drive when impaired. David Ozgo, chief economist of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, says that in a recession, many people cut back on drinking alcohol altogether, though packaged liquor sales had minimal growth between 2007 and 2010.
While the industry’s average growth rate was 6.5 percent from 2002 to 2007, it grew only 2.3 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to supplier numbers. Ozgo says this discretionary cost is among the first items consumers forego in a recession.
Many people are frequenting restaurants less, where they’re likely to order a pricey drink or meal.
The restaurant industry had negative growth from 2008 to 2010. The recession years were “definitely the most challenging period for restaurants in recent history,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.
The industry’s surveys show that two out of every five American adults report they’re not going to restaurants as much as they would like in their daily routine, due to a drop in household income. Riehle says that with more Americans out of work, they also have more time to prepare meals at home, which is likely a healthier option than eating at restaurants.
A study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows that eating out frequently is associated with obesity and higher body fat. Jayne Hurly, senior nutritionist for Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that while restaurants now offer some low calorie, low-fat options, salt content remains a huge problem. “You can watch your weight and pick through the land mine of fat and calories, but if you’re dining out, you’re eating too much salt,” she said.
Jennifer Nutter of Chesterfield, Virginia decided to focus more on healthy home eating when she and her husband were saddled with a house they couldn’t sell. She also decided to switch from being a media designer at a large law firm to a book illustrator. That meant a substantial drop in the family’s income. But it also now allows her more time to prepare nutritious meals, assisted by her three-year-old son, who gets an early education in healthy food choices. “From our peak-gluttony days of dining out, we save about $200 a week,” she says. “I used to be wasteful. Many of us have already felt the benefits of this lean period.”
Far more people have taken advantage of purchasing fresh produce from farmers’ markets.
The number of operating farmers’ markets increased 17 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the USDA, including in states where unemployment rates are the highest, like Michigan. That state has the third largest number of operating farmers’ market in the country. It has 349 markets, up 29 percent over last year.
“If you shop around at farmers’ markets, there are deals to be had,” says Aaron Lavallee, a USDA spokesman. It helps that many farmers markets accept supplemental nutrition assistance program coupons provided to low-income households. The number of farmers’ markets that accept these rose by 72 percent from 2009 to 2010. Some local programs double the value of the coupons for produce purchased at these markets.
Gym memberships are up from 41.5 million in 2007 to 50.2 million in 2010.
Those less chained to a desk are also likely to exercise more. Gym memberships are up from 41.5 million in 2007 to 50.2 million in 2010, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. The 2010 number represents a 10.8 percent increase over 45.3-million in 2009. “Overall, the fitness club industry has fared better than many other businesses during this recession,” says Meredith Poppler, the organization’s vice president of industry growth. “Current club members have indicated that their fitness membership is one of the last expenses they cut, knowing that the investment in their own health is one of the best investments they can ever make.”
Though the recession hasn’t significantly impacted cigarette revenues, with sales down just slightly, from 20.9 percent in 2005, to 19.3 percent in 2010, many have quit smoking as they seek to cut costs. Ashley Robinson, age 27 and the mother of two children ages two and four, decided to kick the habit when her husband lost his job. “It’s such a bad habit and too expensive,” she says. The job loss was just the motivator she needed to get healthier. “I made a promise to my dad [a long-term smoker] that I would quit,” she says. “I need to be there to help my kids through life.”