Can exercise lessen the severity of COVID-19?


For years, researchers have studied the benefits of exercise in preventing dozens of health conditions. But can regular physical activity also help people lessen the impact of viruses like COVID-19?

It’s a question researchers at Kaiser Permanente asked during the height of the pandemic. From January to October 2020, they studied more than 48,000 adult patients with COVID-19 and linked their level of physical activity pre-COVID-19 to their risk for hospitalization, intensive care unit (ICU) admission or death after receiving a COVID-19 diagnosis.

The results, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in Aprilshowed people who were consistently active prior to getting COVID-19 ran less of a risk for hospitalization or death. The least active people in the study were hospitalized about 20% more often and were about 30% more likely to die from COVID-19 compared with those who were somewhat active.

“The exciting thing about this study is how it shows the favorable impact exercise can have on communicable diseases,” said Dr. Jessica Butts, who specializes in family medicine and sports medicine and sees patients at Penn State Health Medical Group – Nyes Road Family Practice II and Penn State Bone and Joint Institute. “It’s clear that staying active — and getting vaccinated — are two steps within your control that will reduce your risk for severe illness related to COVID-19.”

Exercise’s impact on COVID-19 outcomes adds to its proven ability to prevent or lessen the impact of diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, depression, osteoporosis and even dementia. Exercise also helps reduce the risk for breast and colon cancer and increases the life expectancy of those diagnosed.

“If we could take all the health benefits of exercise and bottle them up, it would literally be the ‘magic pill’ we’d use to treat almost anything,” Butts said. “Nothing else we can do in medicine can impact so many disease states.”

Providers with Penn State Health believe in the power of exercise so much that they’re piloting a Physical Activity Vital Sign (PAVS). It involves the health care team asking patients a question about exercise (“How many days per week do you exercise? And for how long?”) during their pre-appointment assessment. The answers will be kept in each patient’s electronic medical record.

“We’re the sixth health system in the nation using PAVS,” Butts said. “Doing so opens the door for us to do more research on how exercise impacts all facets of health.” PAVS is currently being piloted at two practices: Penn State Health Medical Group — Palmyra and Penn State Health Medical Group — Middletown.

Adults looking to get the most health benefits from exercise should follow U.S. Department of Health & Human Services guidelines, which recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. “Moderate means you’re breathing hard but can still carry on a conversation,” Butts said. “Vigorous means you’re working so hard you can barely get a few words out.”

May is “Exercise is Medicine Month,” which means it’s a great time to get started. Butts recommends people make exercise a priority by scheduling it into their day. “A 15-minute walk is a perfect start for almost anyone,” she said. People looking for more challenging or different workouts can look toward many options, including free exercise apps and YouTube videos, the Silver Sneakers program (free to all Medicare beneficiaries) or formal classes that teach techniques like yoga and tai-chi.

Not sure where to begin? Ask your physician. “Nobody will judge you for admitting you don’t exercise regularly; in fact, most people don’t get enough exercise,” Butts said. “But if we can increase your exercise level just a little bit, you’ll start to experience health benefits.”

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