Exercising Regularly Is One of the Best Ways to Lower Your Risk of Severe COVID-19

Aside from wearing a mask, safely social distancing, and getting a vaccine, this one lifestyle habit can make a world of difference.

Exercising Regularly Is One of the Best Things You Can Do to Lower Your Risk of Severe COVID-19
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For years, doctors have stressed the importance of working out regularly to boost your overall health and wellbeing. Now, a new study has found it might even have an added bonus: It could help reduce your risk of severe COVID-19.

The study, which was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, analyzed data from 48,440 adults who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between January 1, 2020 and October 21, 2020. The researchers looked at the patient's previously reported physical activity levels and compared them with their risk of hospitalization, ICU admission, and death after being diagnosed with COVID-19 (all considered indications of "severe" disease).

Here's what they found: People who were diagnosed with COVID-19 who were "consistently inactive" — meaning, they did 10 minutes or less of physical activity a week — had a 1.73times greater risk of being admitted to the ICU and a 2.49 times greater risk of dying from the virus compared to those who were physically active for 150 minutes or more a week. People who were consistently inactive also had a 1.2 times greater risk of being hospitalized, 1.1 times greater risk of ICU admission, and 1.32 times greater risk of death than those who did between 11 and 149 minutes a week of physical activity.

The researchers' conclusion? Consistently meeting physical activity guidelines(more on these below)is strongly associated with a reduced risk of developing severe COVID-19 in adults who becomeinfected with the virus.

"We strongly believe the results of this study represent a clear and actionable guideline that can be used by populations around the world to reduce the risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes, including death," says study co-author Robert Sallis, M.D., director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.

This study raises a lot of questions about your risk of severe COVID-19 and how often you exercise — especially if you've been doing less than 150 minutes a week. Here's what you need to know about the link between physical activity and severe coronavirus risk

Exercise Recommendations In the U.S.

The 150 minutes benchmark wasn't random: Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Heart Association recommend that Americans get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. That can include doing things such as going for a brisk walk, riding a bike, playing tennis, and even pushing a lawnmower.

The CDC encourages people to break up their workouts throughout the week, and even do smaller chunks of exercise during the day (exercise snacks, if you will) when you're pressed for time. (Related: How Much Exercise Is Too Much?)

Why Might Regular Exercise Lower Your Risk of Severe COVID-19?

It's not entirely clear and, to be fair, the study didn't explore this. However, doctors have some thoughts.

One is that exercising regularly can help lower a person's BMI, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. Having a higher BMI and, specifically, one that falls under the category of overweight or obese raises a person's risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Of course, exercise can help prevent obesity or lead to weight loss, says Dr. Watkins. (Keep in mind, the accuracy of BMI as a health measure is debated.)

But exercise can also have a direct impact on your lung health and capacity, says Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. "Based on my experience, people who regularly work their lungs do much better with almost any kind of respiratory disease than people who don't," he says. That's why Dr. Casciari encourages his patients to "get short of breath" at least once a day from physical activity. Routine exercise — and the heavy breathing that often comes with it — can help you work areas of the lungs that you might not otherwise use as often, says Dr. Casciari. "It opens the airways and, if you have fluid or anything that may be lurking in there, it gets expelled." (That's one reason why, even if you're a strength training devotee, you should log some time doing cardio as well. It's also a reason why some doctors have circulated how-tos on breathing techniques during the pandemic.)

Working out regularly also helps strengthen your lung muscles. "This is incredibly important," says Dr. Casciari. "You do a lot of work by breathing and, the more efficient your lungs are, the less work your respiratory muscles have to do." That can be crucial in the case of facing a serious illness like COVID-19, he says. (Related: Why You Cough After a Really Tough Workout)

Exercise even has a direct impact on your immune system, helping to mobilize immune cells in your blood to increase the odds they'll come into contact with — and defeat — pathogens in your body.

"We have known for a long time that immune function improves with regular physical activity, and those who are regularly active have a lower incidence, intensity of symptoms, and risk of death from viral infections," says Dr. Sallis. "In addition, regular physical activity is associated with improvements in lung capacity and cardiovascular and muscular functioning that may serve to lessen the negative impacts of COVID-19 if it is contracted."

The Bottom Line

Getting and staying active can go a long way in helping your body fight the coronavirus, should you get infected. "Our study suggested that physical inactivity was the strongest modifiable risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes," says Dr. Sallis.

And it doesn't take a crazy amount of exercise to do the trick. "Maintaining even a basic recommended level of exercise — such as walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week — is enough to help your body to fight off a variety of diseases, including COVID-19," explains Dr. Sallis. In fact, some experts recommend being especially careful not to go overboard, particularly with high-intensity or super strenuous workouts, as that may actually backfire for keeping your immune system strong during a time of prolonged stress.

Just know this: While exercising regularly may help lower your risk of severe COVID-19, Dr. Watkins points out that the best thing you can do to stay safe is to continue to practice known ways of preventing the spread of COVID-19, such as getting vaccinated, socially distancing, wearing masks, and practicing good hand hygiene.

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