Body & Soul

Regular exercise can help reduce risk of severe COVID-19 case

Apart from receiving the vaccine, getting your daily steps may be the best thing you can do to protect yourself from severe COVID-19. In a new study of nearly 50,000 individuals who developed COVID-19, researchers found that people who did regular physical activity were less likely to end up in the ICU or die from the disease.


The findings were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last week. Compared with people who were active for at least 150 minutes per week, those who were regularly sedentary were about twice as likely to be hospitalised and two-and-a-half times more likely to die from COVID-19. The study explained that exercise can greatly decrease the likelihood of becoming gravely ill from the disease.


The lead study author Robert Sallis, MD, a family and sports medicine doctor at the Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center in California, said physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.


To reach that goal, the study advised that an individual can start with small activities, like walking one’s dog and ditching the elevator for the stairs. Mostly importantly, the study further advised that apart from being vaccinated, doing regular physical activity is the single best thing to do to protect oneself.


Benefit of Exercise


According to the study, exercise is known to help people fight off viral infections by strengthening the immune system, heart, and lungs. It stated that it shows that being aerobically fit increased the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine in some people.


“When we exercise, our heart rates increase and blood flows quickly through the body. This signals the immune cells in places like spleen and bone marrow lymph nodes to come out and circulate the body at a higher rate than normal. The increased immune surveillance can drive down infections.


Physical Activity Lowers Risk


When patients come through the Kaiser Health System, health providers ask about their average weekly physical activity. Information about the duration of and consistency with which they exercise is recorded in the online health record, along with their other vital signs.


Sallis said he believed Kaiser has one of the largest electronic health records systems that includes exercise vital signs.


The research team collected anonymized data from 48,440 adults for whom Kaiser had at least three records of exercise and who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. They grouped the subjects by activity level. The least active group exercised for 10 minutes or less most weeks and the most active group reached the 150-minute-per-week threshold.


Exercise before getting the COVID-19 vaccine?


They found that people in the least-active group were twice as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and two-and-a-half times more likely to die from the disease, compared with those in the most active group.


The researchers used a statistical method to parse out the effect of exercise on COVID-19 outcomes compared with other commonly associated risk factors, like diabetes and a high BMI. “It’s not just its effect on lowering the risk for all of these other chronic diseases— taken apart from that, [physical activity] still has a very profound effect,” Sallis says.


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In a study published in February in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found that, regardless of whether they had obesity, people who walked briskly were less likely to develop severe COVID-19 compared to those who walked slowly.


The Kaiser study builds on this indicating that how often one exercise may be more important than other risk factors for developing severe COVID-19. And by tracking sustained exercise, rather than general fitness, the research shows that building an exercise routine can have significant effects on health.


“This is great data, and it just adds to the work that has consistently shown that physically active people are less prone to a severe case of COVID-19,” Nieman says. It stated also that exercise also does strengthen ones heart and lungs and support the immune system in combating infections. If you’re looking to get more active, opt for activities that lead to a sustained, elevated heart rate, like brisk walks, jogging, cycling, and swimming.


The study emphatically stated that to best strengthen the immunity and support body, it’s important to be physically active for at least 150 minutes per week.


This could include activities like jogging, walking briskly in a hilly area, biking, swimming, or even strenuous gardening. “It really comes down to getting your heart rate up, getting a bit winded, and holding that for 30 minutes,” Sallis said.


Adding that, “you should be walking briskly enough that you couldn’t sing while you’re walking, so you’re a bit winded, but not so intensely that you couldn’t talk.” Explaining further,


Sallis said it doesn’t matter much how one breaks it up, three to 10-minute walks in a day are as good as 30-minute walk. While it’s best to form a habit of exercising most days of the week, going on long walks a few days a week appears to be similarly effective.


However, Nieman notes that exercising regularly gives the immune cells more opportunity to patrol the body and fight infections. “It can’t just be strolling through a store—it needs to be where you’re out there, transporting yourself at a good clip,” Nieman insisted.


However, he pointed out that, while exercise is a great preventative measure; it won’t necessarily help fight illness if an individual falls sick. In fact, exercising too rigorously while sick may make the infection worse, according to Nieman.




“Exercise is great for preventing these respiratory illnesses, but it is not a drug to treat it,” Nieman said.




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