Exercise Is Medicine: Staying Active during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic poses a global health threat. As we try to adjust to a new way of life with teleworking, remote learning and physical distancing, we are moving less and sitting more. This is a major concern because physical inactivity and increased sitting are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.

Experts suggest that we are fighting not one, but two pandemics: COVID-19 and physical inactivity. As of mid-July 2020, COVID-19—the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)—has caused more than 570,000 deaths worldwide. Historically, physical inactivity has contributed to over 3 million deaths per year. The COVID-19 pandemic could increase that number significantly. While COVID-19 poses an immediate health threat, the consequences of reduced physical activity may persist long after the virus has subsided.

Importantly, exercise and staying active could help fight the effects of COVID-19. Regular physical activity boosts immune function, decreases inflammation and is linked to a reduced risk of acute respiratory distress, a major cause of death in COVID-19 patients. Exercise can also prevent and treat many chronic health conditions that increase the risk of illness and death in people infected with SARS-CoV-2. Now, more than ever, is the time to put to use the prescription “exercise as medicine.”

The American College of Sports Medicine has issued a call to action that urges everyone to remain physically active during the pandemic. The guidelines recommend adults engage in 150 minutes (2.5 hours) each week of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise and two to three muscle strengthening sessions. It’s also important to focus on reducing sitting time each day.

While 150 minutes may seem like a lot, for most people it’s a reachable goal. Household chores, yard work and walking all count. Short 10-minute bouts of activity spread throughout the day add up. Many home exercise options require minimal or no equipment. Squats, pushups, step-ups, yoga, dance and guided videos are ideal activities that can be done without going to the gym, and many internet-based resources are available (like this one).

Ultimately, people should find activities that are enjoyable and easily fit into their daily routine. Anything that facilitates movement will work, and any amount of activity is better than no activity.

Break up prolonged periods of sitting with short active breaks (for example, two minutes of walking, standing or climbing stairs) every 30 minutes. Working at a standing desk, limiting screen time or keeping a daily step count can also reduce sitting time.

Let’s all continue to “do our part” during the COVID-19 pandemic and stay physically active.

Isaac Wedig, MS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and PhD student studying kinesiology and integrative physiology at Michigan Technological University. He has over five years of personal training experience, and his research interests are muscular adaptations to exercise training.

Steven Elmer, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. His research uses exercise training to restore musculoskeletal function after injury, maintain health across the lifespan and enhance athletic performance.

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