LONDON — Getting a COVID-19 booster shot this fall? A new study finds regular exercise can help boost its effectiveness as you prepare for cold and flu season. Researchers in South Africa say the more physical activity you get, the more protective the vaccine seems to be.
Study participants who were fully vaccinated and who engaged in high levels of physical activity each week were nearly three times less likely to need hospitalization than vaccinated individuals who were much less active. Previous studies on the effects of physical activity on vaccines for various illnesses suggests that exercise enhances the body’s antibody response.
However, it’s been unclear whether this also applies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 infections. To find out, the researchers used anonymized medical records and wearable activity tracker data from healthcare workers belonging to the same medical insurance plan, as well as a health promotion and behavioral change program.
The team mapped each participant into physical activity categories using their average monthly levels from the two years prior to the start of the study. Those categories include under 60 minutes a week, 60 to 149 minutes, and more than 150 minutes weekly.
They then analyzed COVID swab test results from more than 53,000 participants with low levels of physical activity, over 62,000 with medium levels, and 79,952 with high levels. Study authors also obtained complete health, COVID-19 vaccination, and physical activity data for 196,444 adults testing negative for COVID.
Reaching weekly exercise goals triples COVID vaccine protection
Results show that vaccine effectiveness among fully vaccinated people in the low physical activity category was 60 percent. In other words, the risk of needing hospitalization for a COVID-19 infection fell by 60 percent in that group. The risk fell even more among those engaging in medium levels (72%) and high levels of physical activity (86%).
“The findings suggest a possible dose–response where high levels of physical activity were associated with higher vaccine effectiveness,” the researchers write in a media release.
“This substantiates the WHO recommendations for regular physical activity—namely, that 150–300 mins of moderate intensity physical activity per week has meaningful health benefits in preventing severe disease, in this context against a communicable viral infection.”
Researchers note that exactly how physical activity enhances vaccination isn’t fully understood, “but may be a combination of enhanced antibody levels, improved T cell immunosurveillance, and psychosocial factors.”
Researchers add that mitochondria – the energy powerhouses of cells – have a particularly important role in maintaining immunity against diseases. They believe physical activity helps maintain mitochondrial quality, enabling the repair or elimination of damaged mitochondria, and promoting the growth of new ones.
“Public health messaging should encourage physical activity as a simple, cost-effective way of enhancing vaccine effectiveness to mitigate the risk of severe COVID-19 illness requiring hospital admission,” the study authors conclude.
The findings are published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.