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  • Writer's pictureMaria Mahmood

Can exercise help prevent serious illness from COVID-19?

Exercise can help boost your immunity, lower inflammation and may help prevent serious complications from COVID-19 if you catch it.

JUNE 19, 2020

By Anna Sharratt If you’ve been looking for motivation to get exercise more, new research may help. An early study on COVID-19 suggests that exercise may help prevent serious complications from the virus. Scientific studies have found conditions that put you at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. According to the Centres for Disease Control, they are:

  • High blood pressure

  • Cardiovascular Disease

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Chronic lung disease

  • Liver Disease

  • Age – the older you are, the higher your riskMany of these conditions can lead to more inflammation in the body. And because COVID-19 causes inflammation, a situation called a cytokine storm can develop. That’s when the body’s immune system overreacts. This can lead to your own immune system attacking healthy organs.

How exercise can help

Exercise, even 20 minutes a day, reduces inflammation in the body. It also reduces oxidative stress, part of the body’s natural aging process, which leads to tissue damage. Studies have found those with liver disease, heart disease and obesity who exercised regularly saw their inflammation levels drop. Exercise also improves immunity, improving the body’s ability to ward off infection. Dr. Paul Oh, the medical director of the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation program at University Health Network’s Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, says exercise could help your body recover from COVID-19. But we don’t know for sure yet. "Moderate intensity exercise has been shown to boost your immune function and improve the body's response to viral infections. It is possible then, that exercise could improve your body's immune response to COVID-19, but this is yet to be studied." The recent study showed evidence that exercise could help with one specific complication of COVID-19. It’s called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). This complication of COVID-19 affects between 3% and 17% of all patients. ARDS happens when fluid builds up in your lungs’ tiny air sacs. This reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood. Through regular bouts of exercise, people can:

  • lower their weight

  • increase their lung capacity

  • improve their heart health and blood pressure

These can all set them up to be in better shape if they contract COVID-19.

The best way to exercise

Before you get off the couch, you need to come up with an exercise plan. That’s because failing to stretch and prepare your body for a workout can lead to injuries. You can’t stay active if you’re injured, says physiotherapist Daniel Yoon, the clinic director of Athlete’s Care in Toronto. “If they can’t move, they can’t develop cardiovascular health,” he says. Yoon says that over the past several months, many people have become very sedentary due to stay-at-home orders. That makes the fascia — connective tissue in the body tight. Many are developing posture issues from sitting on soft surfaces. “They’re losing their ability to move,” he says. Plus, they’re developing debilitating neck and back pain. Yoon says that before launching into an aggressive workout regime, it’s best to fix what’s ailing you. Correct your posture by setting up a more ergonomic work station. Build corrective exercises into your day and warm up extensively before any exercise. The World Health Organization recommends all adults:

  • do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week.

  • For more health benefits, adults can increase their moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week.

  • Do muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups 2 or more days a week

Lower-impact exercise such as walking or hiking can be a good first start, Yoon says. Try to add some weight-bearing exercises such planks or squats too. Once your fitness improves, you can start to jog or engage in a higher-intensity workout.

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