Regular exercise protects against fatal covid, new study shows

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Men and women who worked out at least 30 minutes most days were about four times more likely to survive COVID-19 than inactive people, according to a revealing study of exercise and coronavirus outcomes among nearly 200,000 adults in southern California. California.

The study found that exercise, in almost any amount, reduced people’s risks for a serious coronavirus infection. Even people who work out just 11 minutes a week — yes, a week — are at lower risk of hospitalization or death from Covid than those who move less.

“It turns out that exercise is even more powerful than we thought” in protecting people from severe covid, said Robert Sallis, clinical professor at Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Los Angeles and senior author of the new study.

The findings add to the evidence that any amount of exercise helps to dampen the ferocity of coronavirus infections, a message with particular relevance now as holiday travel and gatherings increase and cases of covid continue to rise.

Science already offers ample support for the idea that regular, moderate exercise boosts our immune response and generally helps us ward off respiratory infections or recover more quickly if we catch a virus. In a 2011 study, adults who exercised regularly were nearly half as likely to develop colds or similar infections as inactive people and also about 40% less likely to report their illnesses as persistent.

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A similar pattern is emerging in covid research, with several studies finding that fit and active people end up hospitalized or dying from covid at much lower rates than unfit people. Sallis led a study last year, for example, of more than 48,000 patients at the Kaiser Permanente Health System in Southern California, showing that those who almost never exercised were at a much higher risk of serious Covid outcomes, including death, than patients. of the same age who were quite active.

But this study, while large in scale, focused primarily on two binary groups: those who hardly ever exercised and those who exercised all the time, ignoring the wide swath of people who occasionally exercise and leaving important questions unanswered about how much—or, really, how little—physical activity can best help most of us protect ourselves against severe cravings.

So for the new study, published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Sallis and his colleagues again turned to anonymous Kaiser Permanente patient records. Since 2009, this healthcare system has included exercise as one of the vital signs that healthcare professionals check during each patient visit, which means they ask patients how many days a week they exercise, usually by walking, and for how many minutes. .

Researchers have now traced the records of 194,191 Kaiser patients who were diagnosed with covid between January 1, 2020 and May 31, 2021 and had seen a doctor at least three times in the last few years, so their records contained multiple mentions of their exercise. habits.

Averaging this information, the researchers divided people into five groups based on how much they moved and whether their habits had changed over the years. The least active group consisted of those who regularly exercised for less than 10 minutes a week. The most active consistently train for at least 150 minutes a week, which is the amount of exercise recommended by federal health agencies.

In between were groups whose exercise habits had changed from one doctor’s visit to the next but generally kept them moving for more than 10 minutes but less than an hour a week, and others who exercised regularly for at least an hour a week , but less than 150 minutes.

The patients, in other words, represented the exercise routines of most ordinary people.

Next, the researchers checked everyone’s medical records for conditions known to contribute to serious covid outcomes, including obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Finally, they crossed data on hospitalization or death from covid and people’s exercise habits.

The correlations proved to be “very strong, across the board,” Sallis said. The more someone exercised, he said, the less likely they were to be hospitalized or die after developing covid.

Differences were most extreme between those who almost never exercised and those who exercised at least 150 minutes a week. Those who never exercised were 391% more likely to die after developing covid than active men and women – regardless of whether they had obesity, high blood pressure or existing heart disease.

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But even among those who work out less frequently, managing perhaps 10 or 15 minutes a week, this exercise translates to reduced chances of serious cravings.

“It’s a simple, inexpensive way to protect yourself,” Sallis said.

The study data was collected before coronavirus vaccines were available, but Sallis believes the results would be similar among vaccinated people.

“The results support the ubiquitous reach of physical activity for health benefits,” said I-Min Lee, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, who studies exercise and health but was not involved in this research.

The study has limitations, however. People reported their workouts; has not been objectively tracked. The researchers also looked to improve covid outcomes by not preventing coronavirus infections. And while they found strong links between being active and avoiding serious covid illness, other factors could be at play. People who exercise may have higher incomes, for example, or other lifestyle aspects that influence their health, although researchers have tried to explain these problems.

Overall, Sallis said, “The data is so clear and so strong. To mitigate the risk of serious covid outcomes, get vaccinated and go for a walk.

Do you have a fitness question? Email and we may answer your question in a future column.

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