Update: Stay Active to Reduce COVID-19 Severity

Credit: iStock

As our knowledge about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has continued to evolve, the important role that physical activity plays in combating the disease has become increasingly clear. Scientific research now suggests that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 if you’re infected with the virus.

A landmark study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed a strong link between physical inactivity and severe COVID-19 in 48,000 adults. People with COVID-19 who exercised less than 10 minutes per week were more likely to be hospitalized, admitted to the ICU and die compared to those who exercised 150 minutes per week. Not including older age or having had an organ transplant, which put people at high risk for developing severe COVID-19, not being active was the strongest risk factor, the study showed. This was a greater risk than smoking or having high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, diabetes or cancer. 

Aside from getting vaccinated and continuing to wash your hands, wear a mask and keep your distance when appropriate, exercising regularly may be the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of becoming very sick if you catch the virus. Experts are calling for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to name physical inactivity as a risk factor and for public health officials to promote physical activity as a prevention strategy for severe COVID-19. Because it may take a long time to vaccinate everyone who wants the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s important to spread the message about exercising to keep our communities safe and healthy.

In a previous blog post about the importance of exercising during the pandemic, we explained that adults should participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week and limit time spent sitting. While it may seem like a lot, this translates to only about 20 minutes each day. The benefits of physical activity are not all or nothing, and any amount of activity, any type of physical movement, counts.

Now, with more research showing that physical activity can reduce the severity of COVID-19 and increase survival rate, it’s more important than ever to promote being physically active during the pandemic.

Isaac-Wedig headshot

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 headshot

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.