The latest such study, from Kaiser Permanente, suggests that exercise in almost any amount can cut the risk of severe or fatal COVID even among high-risk patients like those with high blood pressure or heart disease.
“We found that every level of physical activity provided some level of protection,” says lead study author Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, director of the Division of Behavioral Research for Kaiser’s Southern California Department of Research and Evaluation. “Even a 10-minute walk [per] week is associated with better COVID-19 outcomes.”
“The missing aspect in our response to the public health challenge of COVID has been the heightened need for personal and community well-health,” says Gene Olinger, PhD, chief science advisor for research company MRIGlobal, and an adjunct associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine. “Proactive medicine – where individuals optimize nutrition, exercise, sleep, and whole-body meditation — is not a priority in the current health ecosystem. It is changing, and this is good news.”
The More Activity Prior to Infection, the Better
In the Kaiser study, the researchers looked at health records for 194,191 Kaiser adult patients who tested positive for COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021.
Patients’ activity levels were assessed using a self-report system that Kaiser has used since 2009 involving two questions: “On average, how many days per week do you engage in moderate to strenuous exercise (like a brisk walk)?” and, “On average, how many minutes do you engage in exercise at this level?” To be included in the study, participants had to have completed at least three of these assessments in the 2 years before infection.
The more active a patient was, the better their outcomes tended to be, the researchers found. Likewise, less active patients saw worse outcomes.
The exercise benefits come as no surprise to physician Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, MD, head of critical care at the Ottawa Hospital, in Canada, and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
“As an ICU physician who has been taking care of COVID patients from day one, I saw on a regular basis that people in poor metabolic health had bad outcomes,” says Kyeremanteng, who was not involved in the study. “It was clear early on [that] obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disease [were] risk factors for severe COVID and dying from COVID. Basically, the results of the study correlate with what we saw on the front lines.”
It’s important to note that all trends have outliers. Even highly conditioned athletes who exercise often and hard can — and do — become very ill with COVID and can have lingering symptoms like shortness of breath, severe fatigue, and brain fog.
“In younger athletes and those who are optimally fit, there is evidence that COVID can cause myocardial inflammation [heart damage] in one out of 100,” says Olinger. “Fortunately, it is almost always reversible.”
And while controversial, the concept of over-exercising (aka overtraining syndrome) has been associated with suppressed immune function and more cases of upper respiratory tract infection, he says.
“However, the level of exercise that one can achieve varies widely,” Olinger says. “The data is clear that vaccinations for COVID and regular exercise are key to a lifelong resistance to disease and infections.”
What About Exercising After You Get COVID?
Another caution: While the evidence shows that exercise before getting COVID-19 can help improve outcomes, other research has found that returning to exercise too soon after contracting the virus can be dangerous, regardless of your fitness level. In fact, exercise is likely to make long COVID symptoms worse.