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Exercise Builds Resilience. Can It Help Protect Against COVID?

There is a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. That does not mean COVID-19 should be disregarded. Instead, we need to build resilience so our bodies can withstand the threat.

There is debate among the science community whether COVID-19 will ever fully disappear. It is likely that some variants will remain for years to come.

To best protect ourselves against the current and future threats, we can employ several tactics.

The first is obvious: get vaccinated.

The second is obvious: wear a mask and socially distance until rates plummet and the scientific community — not the press — determines we are safe to discard current precautions.

But these are not the only steps we can take. When the precautions are lifted, some level of risk will remain. COVID-19 is not the only respiratory virus threatening our health. While the flu is less harmful than COVID-19, I wouldn’t complain if I never contracted it again.

What other strategies can we take to protect our bodies? We can build our resilience.

Your fitness level can even help fight COVID-19.

A recent study shows an individual’s maximal exercise capacity — how hard they can physically work — is inversely related to hospitalization secondary to COVID-19.

Respiratory viral infections — like COVID-19 — negatively impact the cardiopulmonary system. Cardiorespiratory fitness (exercise capacity) indicates a greater cardiopulmonary reserve and supports the body’s ability to respond to an insult (such as a respiratory viral infection).

The study included 246 adults. Each study participant was pulled from a pool of 21,196 people who completed an exercise stress test between January 1, 2016 and February 29, 2020. From that pool of people, 1183 were tested for COVID-19 from February 29, 2020 to May 30, 2020. A total of 246 tested positive for COVID-19.

A couple of notes based on this data. First, it is possible a patient’s exercise capacity changed between their exercise capacity assessments and COVID-19 test. Although, other research has shown minimal changes in exercise capacity between tests up to 3.8 years apart. On average, people don’t make drastic changes in cardiorespiratory fitness. There are outliers in every group, but it is likely this limitation is averaged out in the 246 people included in the study.

Another issue is the potential for incorrect test results. Previous research shows false negative rates can be as high as 33%. False positives and false negatives can skew the sample.

Lastly, we do not know other potential compounding health characteristics. For example, the researchers did not collect exercise habits or tobacco use data. Lifestyle factors can influence the body’s susceptibility to harm and ability to recover from a virus.

Despite these limitations, the results of the study are promising.

Build resilience with exercise

The more physically fit someone is, the less likely they are to be hospitalized by COVID-19. More specifically, the odds of hospitalization decreased by 13% for every one MET higher of exercise capacity.

A MET — or metabolic equivalent — is a measure of how much energy your body is using. By measuring how much oxygen your body uses, researchers can quantify the intensity of exercise. If you are fit, you can exercise at a higher capacity, meaning you can reach a higher MET level.

It should also be noted that the group of patients who were hospitalized — 89 of the 246 — were older and had more comorbidities (such as diabetes). Age and comorbidities reduce the body’s resilience and cardiorespiratory capacity as well. What is the best approach to reversing the negative effects of aging and most comorbidities?

You guessed it — exercise.

The more physically fit someone is, the more resilient and protective their body is. I am not saying someone who regularly exercises is immune to COVID-19 or hospitalizations, but the odds of experiencing severe complications greatly lowers. This study builds on the mounds of evidence that support the benefits of cardiovascular fitness.


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