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Reduce Your Risk of Severe COVID-19 Infection By Being Physically Active

Another reason to get more active - a new study finds that being physically inactive (a couch potato) is associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and ICU admission for COVID-19, and death from COVID-19. The researchers concluded that being consistently inactive should be viewed as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes, and that it is a "stronger risk factor than any of the underlying medical conditions and risk factors identified by the CDC except for age and a history of organ transplant". Yikes!

On the other hand, being physically active at least 150 minutes per week, and this includes brisk walking, is linked to lower rates of all of the above. Some activity (but under 150 minutes per week) is also better than none, but 150 minutes or more is better. The researchers state that besides vaccinations, social distancing, and mask wearing - being physically active is the single most important action individuals can take to prevent severe COVID-19 and its complications, including death.

The 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of physical activity per week are the recommended US Physical Activity Guidelines for adults, and include moderate and vigorous physical activity. It includes brisk walking. This can be achieved in less than 1/2 hour per day!

The researchers point out that health benefits of regular physical activity include: improved immune function, lower incidence of viral infections, as well as lower intensity and cases of death from viral infections, lowers the risk of chronic inflammation, improves cardiovascular health, increases lung capacity, muscle strength, and improves mental health. Which is why it is not surprising that persons getting a good amount of physical activity each week also generally have fewer problems with COVID-19 infections.

From CNN: Reduce risk of severe Covid with regular activity, study says. Here's how to get in 22 minutes of exercise daily

Some excerpts from the study at British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM): Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48,440 adult patients

Abstract: Objectives To compare hospitalisation rates, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and mortality for patients with COVID-19 who were consistently inactive, doing some activity or consistently meeting physical activity guidelines. 

Methods We identified 48 440 adult patients with a COVID-19 diagnosis from 1 January 2020 to 21 October 2020, with at least three exercise vital sign measurements from 19 March 2018 to 18 March 2020. We linked each patient’s self-reported physical activity category (consistently inactive=0–10 min/week, some activity=11–149 min/week, consistently meeting guidelines=150+ min/week) to the risk of hospitalisation, ICU admission and death after COVID-19 diagnosis.

Summary: What are the findings?

  • Patients with COVID-19 who were consistently inactive during the 2 years preceding the pandemic were more likely to be hospitalised, admitted to the intensive care unit and die than patients who were consistently meeting physical activity guidelines.
  • Other than advanced age and a history of organ transplant, physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes.
  • Meeting US Physical Activity Guidelines was associated with substantial benefit, but even those doing some physical activity had lower risks for severe COVID-19 outcomes including death than those who were consistently inactive.

How might it impact on clinical practice in the future?

  • The potential for habitual physical activity to lower COVID-19 illness severity should be promoted by the medical community and public health agencies.

  • Pandemic control recommendations should include regular physical activity across all population groups.

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