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Physical Activity and COVID-19

By Dr. Claude Matar

Building and maintaining a strong Immune system has never been more important than it is today. While exercise may not prevent us from becoming infected if exposed to the coronavirus, it is likely that keeping active will boost our immune system producing less severe symptoms and faster recovery.

Exercise May Prevent Deadly Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

A review by Zhen Yan, PhD, of the School of Medicine (1), showed that medical research findings “strongly support” the possibility that exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of ARDS, which affects between 3% and 17% of all patients with COVID-19.

Based on available information, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 20% to 42% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 will develop ARDS of which 67%-85% are admitted to intensive care.

Regular Exercise May Reduce Hospitalization and Death From COVID-19

Early observations indicate that COVID-19 infected patients with obesity and its usual comorbidities (hypertension, diabetes, cerebrovascular or cardiovascular disease), which all improve with regular exercise and weight control are more likely to require hospitalization, ICU level care, and die from the infection (2).

The Link Between Physical Activity and the Body’s Defense System

Multiple studies have now linked moderate exercise with decreased rates of influenza, pneumonia, and other infections, as well as chronic diseases like the comorbidities of obesity and lack of regular exercise such as diabetes and heart disease (3).

Lack of Exercise is a Major Cause of Chronic Diseases

The body rapidly maladapts to insufficient physical activity, and if continued, results in substantial decreases in both total and quality years of life. Taken together, conclusive evidence exists that chronic disease is a major risk factor for COVID-19 and that lack of physical inactivity is one important cause of most chronic diseases. In addition, physical activity primarily prevents, or delays, chronic diseases (4).

Physical Activity Prepares the Body to Fight COVID-19 and Win

Staying active supports your immune system which helps your body’s defense mechanisms against Covid-19 in a variety of ways, including:

  • Reducing systemic inflammation (5)
  • Increasing the presence of innate immune cells (6)
  • Positively effecting your gut microbiome (7)


1. Zhen Yan, Hannah R Spaulding. Extracellular superoxide dismutase, a molecular transducer of health benefits of exercise. DOI: 10.1016/j.redox.2020.101508

2. Driggin E, Madhavan MV, Bikdeli B et al. Cardiovascular considerations for patients, health care workers, and health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Am Coll Cardiol 2020;75:2352-71.

3. David C. Nieman, Laurel M. Wentz. The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science. Volume 8, Issue 3, May 2019, Pages 201-217

4. Frank W. Booth, Christian K. Roberts, Matthew J. Laye. Lack of Exercise Is a Major Cause of Chronic Diseases. Comprehensive Physiology. Volume 2, Issue 2. April 2012. Published online: 1 April 2012. https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c110025

5. Michael G. Flynn, FACSM, Brian K. McFarlin, Melissa M. Markofski. State of the Art Reviews: The Anti-Inflammatory Actions of Exercise Training. First Published May 1, 2007 Review Article Find in PubMed. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827607300283

6. Richard J. Simpson, Hawley Kunz, Nadia Agha, Rachel Graff. Chapter Fifteen - Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions. Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science. Volume 135, 2015, Pages 355-380.

Molecular and Cellular Regulation of Adaptation to Exercise. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.08.001

7. Mailing, Lucy J.; Allen, Jacob M.; Buford, Thomas W.; Fields, Christopher J.; Woods, Jeffrey A. Exercise, and the Gut Microbiome: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms, and Implications for Human Health. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: April 2019 - Volume 47 - Issue 2 - p 75-85. doi: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000183

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