Regular exercise seems to offer protection against COVID-19—not only from catching the illness, but also from developing serious disease.
The news comes from a recently published meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which explored the link between exercise and COVID. The research showed that people who worked out regularly had a 11% lower risk of getting COVID and, if they did happen to catch the illness, a 34% lower risk of developing a severe form of the disease.
Though the health benefits of exercise are nothing new—past research has shown its protective effects on chronic diseases and viral infections, and its ability to boost the immune system—the findings suggest that the benefits gleaned from exercise may be especially helpful against COVID.
“Among [exercise’s] many beneficial effects, some that could be especially relevant for this disease are its immunological benefits, its ability to mitigate the effects of stress on immunity, or the reduction of risk factors for a worse prognosis of COVID-19, such as obesity or hypertension,” study co-author Antonio García-Hermoso, PhD, a senior researcher with Navarrabiomed and the Universidad Pública de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, told Health.
Here's what to know about the protective effects of exercise on COVID—including just how much activity is beneficial—and how movement can help protect against disease.
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Exercise Significantly Reduces the Risk of Infection and Severe Disease
For the analysis, the team of researchers from the Universidad Pública de Navarra evaluated 16 studies that included over 1.8 million people to understand if and how exercise impacts the risk of both catching and developing severe disease from COVID.
Though previous studies have shown that exercise appears to reduce the risk of negative complications from COVID, this report is the first to analyze the available evidence and quantify the risk reduction between exercise and COVID severity.
The researchers found that people who regularly exercised had a 11% lower chance of getting infected, a 36% lower chance of being hospitalized, a 34% lower chance of developing severe disease, and a 43% lower chance of dying from COVID.
The benefits peaked when people got around 150 weekly minutes of moderate activity (about 21 minutes each day) or 75 weekly minutes of vigorous activity (just over 10 minutes a day). But even low amounts of exercise provided protection against COVID.
"We found that regular physical activity seems to be associated to a lower risk of adverse COVID-19 outcomes," said García-Hermoso. "The most surprising finding for me and my team was that regular physical activity was associated to a lower risk of COVID-19 infection."
The researchers hope the findings will help healthcare providers and policymakers develop guidance highlighting how regular exercise may reduce the risk of negative COVID outcomes, especially in high-risk individuals. "These findings provide some support to start considering exercise as medicine," García-Hermoso said.
Exercise Improves Immune Function and Fights Inflammation
It’s well-documented that regular physical activity helps prevent and manage numerous health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety.
Past research has also shown that regular exercise may provide protection against contracting and dying from infectious diseases, and may also help prevent the common cold.
The protection gleaned from exercise likely, at least in part, comes from exercise’s ability to improve immune function—essentially helping the body produce a more robust antibody response and clear viruses faster.
Physical activity can also reduce systemic inflammation, which may be important in preventing severe outcomes—like hospitalization or death—from COVID, according to Seth Creasy, PhD, assistant professor in the division of endocrinology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Prior COVID research has shown inflammation to be at the root of COVID disease severity, since pre-existing inflammatory conditions, like obesity and coronary diseases, are associated with worse clinical outcomes.
In addition to the above benefits, exercise also boosts cardiorespiratory fitness, physical function, and muscular health—all of which can help protect us against severe complications from COVID, according to Creasy.
This doesn't mean that exercise is a cure-all for COVID, but rather another tool in our fight against the virus.
"In addition to physical activity, it is likely that other lifestyle behaviors such as getting adequate sleep and maintaining a healthy diet will support a strong immune system to help fight against COVID-19," Creasy said. Getting vaccinated, social distancing, masking and practicing good hygiene are the most effective strategies to avoid getting sick.
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Everyone Can Benefit From More Physical Activity
García-Hermoso hopes that the findings give people another good reason to be physically active. “Everybody can benefit from being more active, regardless of age, sex, or physical ability,” he said.
There is no one size fits all answer for exercising—the goal is to find ways to move more and sit less. "Choose an activity that you enjoy and that you will stick with," said Creasy.
This can be done as part of your work or daily commute and also through dance, play, and everyday household tasks such as gardening and cleaning, said García-Hermoso. If possible, you should aim to incorporate muscle-strengthening activities, high-intensity exercises and resistance training into your workouts to hit all of the muscle groups, he added.
The biggest takeaway is that even a little bit of exercise can go a long way. The greatest risk reduction occurred when people who typically didn't exercise added some type of physical activity into their routine.
"This suggests that going out and doing a little bit of activity could be beneficial," Creasy said—helpful advice, not only for protection against COVID, but your overall health and wellness.