As we head into our third year living in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, we’ve learned that the virus, in all its variants, is likely here to stay. In previous blog posts about the health benefits of physical activity during the pandemic, we have explained that adults should participate in at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week and that regular physical activity may help reduce the risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 if you are infected with the virus. As our knowledge has evolved throughout the pandemic, research now suggests that regular exercise can help to combat COVID-19 infection on three different levels.
Regular physical activity lowers the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Based on a review of 16 research studies involving more than 1.8 million adults, researchers found that people who are physically active are less likely to get very sick from COVID-19 than those who are not very active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now counts low levels of physical activity (i.e., physical inactivity) as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 (which includes being hospitalized or dying), much like many other underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, smoking, obesity and heart disease.
Being active may help bolster the immune response to COVID-19 vaccinations. In a recent study, researchers explored how physical activity enhances the immune system’s first-line of defense and also increases antibody levels after vaccinations for several infectious diseases, such as the flu. The researchers emphasized how physical activity increases resistance to infectious diseases. More research will help to confirm role of physical activity in potentially enhancing the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Physical activity is an important tool during short- and long-term recovery from COVID-19. In addition to the complications associated with COVID-19, a variety of symptoms can persist for months following infection. This stage has been officially named “long COVID” or “post-COVID.” The most common symptoms of long COVID include:
- shortness of breath,
- cognitive dysfunction,
- muscle and joint pain,
- weakness and
- impaired ability to perform basic, everyday activities.
With fall and winter approaching, COVID-19 cases could surge again. Aside from getting vaccinated, it is important to stay physically active and encourage others to do so as well. Learn more about staying active in the winter on the CDC website.
Isaac Lennox, BS, is a master’s student studying kinesiology in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. His goal is to become a primary care physician and promote healthy living behaviors to improve rural health.
Steven Elmer, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. His research uses physical activity and exercise as medicine to restore musculoskeletal function after injury, maintain health across the lifespan and enhance physical function in health.