Exercise during COVID-19: Why physical activity can protect from severe illness, death

WATCH: Managing mental and physical well-being during COVID-19

With lockdown measures, stay-at-home orders, curfews and the closure of fitness facilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically restricted people’s movement.

Physical activity and exercise have multiple known health benefits, from weight loss, to improving cardiovascular health, to reducing stress.

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It is also effective for the prevention and treatment of heart diseases, diabetes and certain cancers.

Now, new research suggests that staying active could potentially decrease the risk of severe COVID-19 illness and even death.

A U.S. study published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that COVID-19 patients who were consistently inactive — exercising 10 minutes or less per week — during the two years preceding the pandemic were more likely to be hospitalized, require intensive care and die than those who were consistently physically active for at least 150 minutes per week.

Other than advanced age and a history of organ transplant, physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes, the research concluded.

“This is a wake-up call to .. everybody around the world,” said Robert Sallis, study author and family and sports medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana, Calif.

“They need to start exercising and get more active.”

Linda Trinh, assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, said: “Regular physical activity might be the single most important action that individuals can now take to prevent severe COVID-19 and its complications.”

And this is in addition to vaccinations and following public health guidelines.”

In Canada, like elsewhere, 150 minutes per week, or 30 minutes on five days of the week, of aerobic exercise, like walking or riding a bicycle at a moderate to vigorous intensity, is recommended, according to guidelines from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP).

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“We know that physical activity is linked to prevention of a number of different chronic diseases, as well as improved immune function and improvement in health in individuals who already have chronic conditions as well,” said Amy Kirkham, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education.

The diminished levels of inflammation of the body through exercise can help reduce the severity of side effects experienced by individuals who become COVID-19-positive, she added.

Beyond the prevention of chronic diseases, Kirkham said that physical activity can also have “psychological benefits, which are especially important during the ongoing pandemic, including reduced anxiety and depression and improved cognition and quality of life.”

Prior to the start of the pandemic, nearly 84 per cent of Canadians did not meet the physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week, government data showed.

COVID-19 has only made it harder for people to stay physically active.

This is due to restricted access to fitness facilities and parks, fewer people commuting to work, and loss of opportunities for leisure time to perform physical activity because of increased child-care demands on parents, Kirkham noted.

In a May 2020 survey of 1,055 adults across Canada, 26 per cent of respondents reported being consistently inactive – before and during the pandemic.

Twenty per cent indicated they had an unsuccessful transition, meaning they were active prior to COVID-19 but were currently inactive.

Additionally, 32 per cent said they had always been active – prior to and during the pandemic.

Another survey published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that 40.5 per cent of inactive Canadians became less active, while 22.4 per cent of active individuals became less active during the pandemic.

Data from activity tracker Fitbit shows that there was a 14 per cent decline in step counts in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic compared to the same month the previous year.

“When you look at the population in Canada, we’re not doing very good in terms of meeting the physical activity guidelines even before the pandemic and during the pandemic,” said Trinh.

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Meanwhile, there is also concern that the pandemic restrictions and public health guidelines are overlooking the importance of physical activity.

I think it’s really concerning that one of the first things we did was shut down a lot of venues where people could be physically active,” said Sallis.

He said keeping venues open where people can be active should be a priority because it is an essential part of life.

Most recently, in an effort to stem the surge of COVID-19 cases, Canada’s largest province of Ontario ordered the closure of all outdoor recreational facilities, drawing criticism from several leading epidemiologists in the country.

This can have long-term consequences on both the physical and mental health,” said Trinh.

“You’re also creating disparities in access to physical activity with these closures, which widens the gap in physical activity participation and access among those who are at greatest risk for COVID-19.”

Despite the restrictions, there are a number of ways that people can still stay active during the pandemic.

Walking is the safest and easiest option. And current mandates allow walking outdoors where you can still maintain physical distancing.

Dancing with your family indoors while meal prepping is another good way to get your heart rate up, Trinh suggested.

Home workouts and online exercise videos have become increasingly popular during the pandemic.

If you don’t have exercise equipment, both Trinh and Kirkham suggested using household items such as water bottles or soup and paint cans or performing bodyweight exercises.

If you’re waiting in line at a grocery store or for your vaccine appointment, you could even kill time by doing squats, jumping jacks or marching in place, said Trinh.

“Canadian adults would have to be more creative and use more motivation to perform physical activity during the pandemic,” added Kirkham.

Trinh said it was also important to choose physical activities that you enjoy because “you’re more likely to stick to it.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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