The Harmful Effects of Staying Inside for Too Long, According to a New Study

Plus, what you can do to combat these effects.

By Erin Hays
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April 14, 2020 — 4 p.m. EST

To some of us, the idea of social distancing may sound easy. In fact, there are memes flying around the internet saying, “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch.” And this is true. We may not be called to the front lines of battle, but for many of us, social distancing has taken a heavy emotional toll that’s not something to be made light of. While it’s necessary to focus on the health implications of COVID-19 itself, it’s also important to understand harmful effects of staying inside for a month or longer, and the more emotional and mental effects of this virus. 

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Emotional and mental struggles due to COVID-19 could lead to physical ramifications down the line. According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences: “Social isolation has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes,” including a “50% increased risk of developing dementia;” a “29% increased risk of incident coronary heart disease;” a “25% increased risk for cancer mortality;” a “59% increased risk of functional decline;” and a “32% increased risk of stroke.” 

To investigate further, a recent study actually looked at the emotional distress caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in working adults in China after one month of confinement. The study surveyed 369 adults living in 64 cities in China on their health conditions, distress, and life satisfaction. All the participants were not infected by the virus themselves, but lived in locations that were affected by COVID-19 to varying degrees. 

Of these adults, 27% still worked at the office, 38% worked from home, and 25% stopped working due to the outbreak. Compared with people who stopped working during the outbreak, people who worked at their office reported less distress and higher life satisfaction. In addition, people who worked at home also had better mental health than those who had stopped working.

Interestingly, the study also examined how the amount of exercise people did in a day affected their life satisfaction. The results are surprising. You might expect people who exercised more and had a healthy lifestyle during the outbreak would be less bothered by the severity of COVID-19 in their region, translating to better life satisfaction. However, the study showed that people who exercised for more than 2.5 hours per day reported worse life satisfaction in affected locations, while those who exercised for half an hour or less during the lockdown reported positive life satisfaction. There were no significant changes in life satisfaction for people who exercised between 1 and 2.5 hours a day. The study didn’t report on why this may be true, therefore this information may be a confounding factor, but it's still interesting to note. Many experts say just 30 minutes of movement a day is enough to stay healthy. As always, listen to your body and pay attention to how you feel with any amount of exercise. Consult with your doctor if you're concerned. 

Americans can learn a lot from these findings, as we’re now in the social distancing phase that Chinese people recently got out of. Since we’re still unsure how long these COVID-19 stay-at-home orders will stay in place, here are a few things you can start doing to improve your mental and physical health. 

 How to Improve Life at Home

1. Try to find some “work” to do at home. 

Now, “work” is in quotes because you can classify many things as “work.” Obviously if your job allows you to work from home, you would do that. However, many may have lost their job due to the economic downfall during COVID-19 or are unable to work from home. That doesn’t mean you don’t have “work” to do. Whether it be a hobby, important paperwork that you’ve been putting off, or a project you’ve been meaning to start for a while, try to find a structured project to work on during the day. This study shows that doing some form of work, even at home, improves mental and physical health.  

2. Combat loneliness virtually.

There are a lot of virtual options to combat loneliness these days. Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangout are all good options for groups to see each other and chat. There are also sites and apps, such as House Party, where you can play games online with friends.

3. Don’t overdo the workouts.

As discussed, working out for more than 2.5 hours per day actually reduced people’s life satisfaction in the reported study. A quick 30-minute to an hour workout is all you need. While it is important to keep your body moving and get some activity in, going overboard can be detrimental. Instead find a new favorite book, tackle a puzzle, or meditate, all of which can keep your mind occupied without exercising.

While we all agree social distancing is essential to flatten the curve and keep us safe, it is important to remember the emotional repercussions for many and focus on how to combat those as well.  

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Article written by Erin Hays