As unappealing as exercising during this pandemic is – given the increased barriers and extra restrictions – it may be time to dust off those running shoes. According to a new study, physical inactivity is linked to more severe Covid-19 infections and a higher risk of dying from the virus.
The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at almost 50,000 adults in the U.S. with confirmed Covid-19 infection between January and October 2020.
What the researchers found was that patients who had Covid-19 and who were consistently inactive during the previous two years were more likely to be admitted to hospital, to require intensive care, and to die than were patients who had consistently met physical activity guidelines.
As a reminder, the guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend 150 minutes to 300 minutes of a week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes to 150 of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or some combo of the two.
The study also found that even exercising inconsistently lowered the odds for severe Covid-19 outcomes when compared to people who were not active at all.
“This is a wake-up call for the importance of healthy lifestyles and especially physical activity,” said Robert Sallis, study author, in a statement. “People who regularly exercise had the best chance of beating Covid-19, while people who were inactive did much worse.”
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Among all Covid-19 patients, 8.6% were hospitalized, 2.4% were admitted to the ICU, and 1.6% died.
But patients who were consistently inactive had 1.73 times greater odds of ICU admission and 2.49 times greater risk of dying than patients who were consistently active. They were also 73% more likely to require intensive care, and 2.5 times more likely to die of the infection.
The study also looked at how other potentially influential factors, such as race, age, sex, and underlying medical conditions influenced outcomes but still found that not being physically active was a stronger risk factor than any underlying medical condition or other risk factors, with the exception of age and history of organ transplant.
“In fact, physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor across all outcomes, compared with the commonly cited modifiable risk factors, including smoking, obesity, diabetes, hypertension [high blood pressure], cardiovascular disease and cancer,” the researchers pointed out in their paper.
And even though several risk factors have been identified for severe Covid-19 outcomes, physical inactivity wasn’t one of them – despite it being a well known risk factor for many other health conditions.
“What surprised me the most from this study was the strength of the association between inactivity and poor outcomes from Covid-19,” said study co-author Deborah Rohm Young. “Even after we included variables such as obesity and smoking in the analysis, we still saw inactivity was strongly associated with much higher odds of hospitalization, ICU admission, and death compared with moderate physical activity or any activity at all.”
While it’s worth noting that this study was observational so it can’t establish cause and it relied on patients’ own assessment of their physical as well as didn’t really measure exercise intensity, physical activity may reduce the risk of poor Covid-19 outcomes.
As a result, researchers suggest that engaging in regular physical activity might be the “single most important action individuals can take to prevent severe Covid-19 and its complications, including death.”
Sallis added: “Exercise is medicine that everyone should take – especially in this era of Covid-19. Walk 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week at a moderate pace and that will give you a tremendous protective effect against Covid-19.”