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Introduction

In this article, I focus on how you can use exercise to reduce your risk of suffering from respiratory viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

The Risk of Inactivity

As we’ve discussed previously, a recent analysis of clinical trials revealed that exercise reduces your risk of acquiring a respiratory viral infection in the community (1). Furthermore, exercise also reduces your risk of dying from a respiratory virus if you become infected (1)!

But what about SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic?

A recent article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at how physical activity protected 48 440 adult patients diagnosed with COVID-19 (2).

Specifically, they linked physical activity (classified as inactive = 0 – 10 min/week, some activity=11 – 149 min/week, consistently meeting guidelines = 150 + min/week) to the risk of (i) hospitalization, (ii) intensive care admission and (iii) death after COVID-19 diagnosis (2).

The results of their analysis are striking.

Patients with COVID-19 who were consistently inactive had (i) a 2.26 elevated risk of hospitalization, (ii) a 1.73 increase in the risk of admission to intensive care, and (iii) a 2.49 increase in the risk of death due to COVID-19 compared to COVID-19 diagnosed patients who consistently met physical activity guidelines (2).

To quote the Authors directly:

The magnitude of risk for all outcomes associated with being consistently inactive exceeded the odds of smoking and virtually all the chronic diseases studied in this analysis, indicating physical inactivity may play a crucial role as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes‘ (2).

The authors conclude that ‘Pandemic control recommendations should include regular physical activity across all population groups’ (2).

The Long-Term Protective Effects of Exercise Against COVID-19

A second study has revealed the remarkable long-term protective effect of physical fitness. Here, the Author’s assessed how physical fitness at a young age protects you against disease many years later.

First, the Authors retrieved over one million Swedish men’s cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) levels while serving in the military between 1968 and 2005. Then, they assessed how the historic CRF values affected the risk of hospitalization, intensive care, or dying due to COVID-19 in 2020 (3).

Strikingly, high cardiorespiratory fitness at a young age reduces the risk of COVID-19 induced hospitalization by 24%, intensive care by 39%, and death by 44% (3). In addition, the protective effect of physical fitness against severe Covid-19 occurred in people of all ages, weights, and despite the presence of chronic disease (3).

Thus, cardiorespiratory fitness at a young age protects people later in life against severe COVID-19.

How to Exercise for Maximal COVID-19 Protection

The most protection against COVID-19 occurs in people who have performed at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise targeting the cardiorespiratory system (2, 3).

Although strength training offers some protection against COVID-19, aerobic fitness is far more effective (2, 3). Thus, we recommend that improving your aerobic fitness should become a priority in your training program.

Training sessions that last longer than one hour become stressful on your body, which can suppress your immune system (4). For this reason, you’ll want to train as efficiently as possible to get your workout done in under an hour. A straightforward approach is to perform 40-minute sessions of moderate cardio four days a week.

Currently, there are no clear recommendations on which type of training is optimal. However, steady-state cardio, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or sprint interval training (SIT) improve cardiorespiratory fitness. So, pick the type of training you enjoy most.  

Unfortunately, it takes time to improve your fitness levels for virus protection. For example, it took 20 weeks of regular exercise to observe an improvement in the immune response in patients (1). Thus, although exercise helps protect you against viral disease, it’s not a quick fix.

Take-Home Message

Being moderately active for 1.5 – 3 hours a week can provide you with significant protection against severe COVID-19 should you become infected (2).

Importantly, physical fitness appears to provide long-term protection against COVID-19 despite the presence of other risk factors, such as obesity and chronic disease (3).

For these reasons, you should perform 3-5 workouts consisting of moderate physical activity each week,  keeping each session to under one hour.

Exercise Against Covid
Exercise Against Covid

References and Further Reading

1.            S. F. M. Chastin et al., Effects of Regular Physical Activity on the Immune System, Vaccination and Risk of Community-Acquired Infectious Disease in the General Population: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 51, 1673-1686 (2021).

2.            R. Sallis et al., Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48 440 adult patients. Br J Sports Med,  (2021).

3.            A. Af Geijerstam et al., Fitness, strength and severity of COVID-19: a prospective register study of 1 559 187 Swedish conscripts. BMJ Open 11, e051316 (2021).

4.            D. C. Nieman, L. M. Wentz, The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci 8, 201-217 (2019).

Acknowledgements

Images provided by Ljupco and lzf

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Information written and expressed on this website is for education purposes and interest only. It is not intended to replace advice from your medical or healthcare professional.

You are encouraged to make your own health care choices based on your own research and in conjunction with your qualified practitioner.

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Disrupted sleep increases anxiety and depression. Yoga Nidra is an effective method that has helped many people overcome insomnia.

Beautiful Woman Running On Treadmill

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