It’s been a time of unimaginable suffering, but the Covid crisis has also brought some silver linings, including some surprising health benefits. So, what health lessons did we learn in lockdown and how can we continue to make the most of them?
Improved hand hygiene
Covid has finally convinced us to take hand-washing seriously, which can only be a good thing.
“Hand-washing is an incredibly effective way of stopping a wide range of infectious diseases,” says Prof Jeremy Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent. “We’ve seen how it can reduce the transmission of respiratory infections like Covid and flu, but it’s especially important for infections passed through the oral-faecal route, like norovirus.
“These viruses are spread very effectively if someone touches a contaminated surface, then touches their face.”
And the 20-second rule still applies
“Hand-washing with soap and warm water kills everything within 20-30 seconds,” says Prof Rossman. In pre-Covid times, the average person washed their hands for 10 seconds, killing 90 per cent of germs, which might sound like a good result until you consider how fast bugs multiply.
Equally, hand sanitiser, which must be 60-70 per cent alcohol, should be used properly. “Soak your hands and let it dry,” says Prof Rossman. “If you don’t soak your hands or wipe your hands before it’s dried, it won’t kill everything. It will reduce the risk but not eliminate it.”
With gyms closed and exercise one of the only reasons we could leave the house, many of us discovered the joys of exercise in the great outdoors, which is good for mental health.
While any kind of exercise yields physical health benefits, exercise in nature helps us feel happier and more alert.
Even a simple 20-minute stroll in nature significantly reduces stress hormones in your body, according a study from Frontiers in Psychology. A weekly ‘green pill’ of at least two hours in nature is the minimum dose needed to feel happier and healthier, according to research in the Journal of Nature.
More family meals
With the daily commute cancelled, along with after-school clubs, gathering at the table became a daily occurrence. And it wasn’t only parents who appreciated this.
“As a family therapist, I know that during times of uncertainty, both children and adults need rituals, like shared mealtimes, more than ever to provide connection and meaning,” says psychologist Anne Fishel, author of Home for Dinner and founder of The Family Dinner Project. “During the pandemic, if kids have one shared meal to look forward to each day, when they know there will be silliness and fun, as well as a chance to share feelings and feel heard, this regular time of bonding will go a long way to maintaining their well-being.”
Research also shows that children who eat with their parents are more optimistic, do better at school, and are more likely to get their five a day.
“Remember that if a shared breakfast or lunch works better, that is just as good as dinner,” says Fishel. “The benefits of mealtime, like better grades and nutrition, lower rates of substance abuse and depression, don’t spring from making a gourmet meal. The benefits come from the atmosphere at the table being warm and welcoming, with kids and adults having a chance to talk and feel heard.”
Switch to active ‘transport’
Another flicker of hope amid the Covid gloom was how nature bounced back as pollution dipped. Deer skipped across Italian beaches, dolphins swooped into Venice and people in the Punjab reported seeing the Himalayas for the first time in three decades.
Nitrous dioxide pollution plummeted by 20-60 per cent in cities, as a drastic drop in commuting and school runs caused traffic to grind to a halt.
“Air pollution is the main environmental factor that causes respiratory disease and heart disease,” says Prof Alastair Lewis from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York. “The health risks of pollution are broadly comparable to other risk factors like obesity, inactivity or deprivation.”
And we can all do our bit by driving less
“The optimum way is to walk or cycle, as a lot of people have been discovering this summer, and it solves two problems by dealing with pollution, and physical activity and weight loss,” says Prof Lewis. “If you have to commute long distances, electric vehicles are cleaner, and public transport is better due to economies of scale,” says Prof Lewis.
While the pandemic has been challenging, it’s also unearthed a deep well of empathy and resilience. “There has definitely been a feeling of camaraderie,” says Lowri Dowthwaite, a lecturer in psychological interventions at the University of Central Lancashire.
This kind of community spirit response builds our “post-traumatic strength”. “Rather than going into fight or flight, where we attack each other and become aggressive, we confide in and console one another, and we know that kind of sociability is hugely important for our mental well-being,” says Dowthwaite.
So how can we maintain this? Dowthwaite suggests taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and what we want to do differently, whether that’s volunteering on an ongoing basis, or making more time for family.