Exercise offers ‘tremendous protective effect’ against COVID-19

PASADENA, Calif. — Need another reason to exercise? A new study finds breaking a good sweat may keep you out of the hospital if you contract COVID-19. Researchers from Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center say exercising, even inconsistently, vastly improves your odds of avoiding hospitalization and death from SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID.

“This is a wake-up call for the importance of healthy lifestyles and especially physical activity,” says study co-author Robert E. Sallis, MD, a family and sports medicine physician in a media release.

Researchers wanting to understand the impact of exercise on COVID-19 outcomes had an ideal information source from which to extract data. Since 2009, Kaiser Permanente Southern California has regularly collected exercise information from patients as part of every outpatient visit.

This Exercise Vital Sign measurement involves a set of questions about how often and how long each patient has regularly exercises. Patients report how many days a week of moderate to strenuous exercise they engage in and about how long each session lasts. Doctors keep the records in each patient’s electronic health record.

Inactivity is one of the biggest COVID risks

For the current study, researchers selected 48,440 adults testing positive for COVID-19 between Jan. 1 and Oct. 21, 2020. Each patients also had to have a minimum of two measurements of their Exercise Vital Sign between March 2018 and March 2020.

Patients in the study were representative of the racially diverse Southern California population and had an average age of 47. The majority (61.9%) of the COVID patients were female.

Results of the study determined that, overall, 6.4 percent of participants were consistently active while 14.4 percent were consistently inactive. The remaining 79.2 percent fell into the group of inconsistent exercisers.

The study finds being consistently inactive puts a person at one of the highest risk levels for COVID-19 complications. Their risk is similar to being over the age of 60 or having a history of organ transplant.

In comparison to those who are consistently active, the consistently inactive are twice as likely to be hospitalized. They are also 1.73 times more likely to enter a hospital’s ICU and 2.49 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Even a little activity is better than none

You might think that only the consistently active group fared well against the worst outcomes of COVID-19, but the findings tell a different story. In fact, any amount of physical activity is a strong buffer against possible hospitalization, ICU admission, or death from COVID-19.

Even the largest group in the study, those who are inconsistently active, gained a higher level of protection against COVID-19 than those in the consistently inactive group, researchers conclude.

“What surprised me the most from this study was the strength of the association between inactivity and poor outcomes from COVID-19,” says study co-author Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation. “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.”

“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,” Sallis adds.

The study authors also provided a tip for determining what “moderate pace” means: too winded to sing but still able to talk.

“I continue to believe that exercise is medicine that everyone should take–especially in this era of COVID-19,” Sallis concludes.

The finds appear in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.