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Exercise and Your Health: How Being Fit Protects You from Illness — COVID Included

New studies have heralded another major advantage to being physically active or taking part in a regular exercise routine: Those who are fit are less likely to develop severe illness from COVID-19. The research seems to reinforce previous findings that link fitness with the reduced risk of getting seriously sick from other viruses, such as the common cold or Influenza.

The most compelling study, published in May by the British Journal of Sports Medicine [1], reviewed data on nearly 50,000 Californians who were infected with COVID-19. The researchers found that those who had been the most physically active before contracting the illness were the least likely to be hospitalized or die as a result of COVID-19.

Those findings seem to be in line with the experience of primary care physicians who often see a key different among patients who lead sedentary lifestyles and those that are active in various activities or simply follow the U.S. minimal guidelines for regular exercise.

“The more physically active you are, the less risk of complications, and the less risk of hospitalizations,” explains Baptist Health Primary Care [2] physician Patricia Feito-Fernandez, M.D. [3] “And your immune system is better, along with your output in terms of your lung function and heart function.”

The U.S. government and the American Heart Association [4] recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity — or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week. Add moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least 2 days per week, the guidance states. (June 12th is Family Health & Fitness Day.)

Another recent study found that patients with lasting symptoms of COVID-19, referred to as “long haulers,” can benefit from an exercise program. The study, published in the journal Chronic Respiratory Disease, involved 30 patients. They took part in supervised rehabilitation classes twice a week over six weeks. The program included aerobic exercise, including walking or using a treadmill, and strength training of the arms and legs. Most patients “demonstrated significant improvements in exercise capacity, respiratory symptoms, fatigue and cognition,” the study’s co-authors said.

Dr. Feito-Fernandez has seen the difference exercise can make. Those patients who are either moderately to intensely active — or even those that who take part in mild levels of exercise — “have far less complications from COVID and far less issues in terms of being long haulers or even hospitalizations.”

“For the patient who does exercise, and does have a risk of getting COVID or has had COVID, it’s definitely a huge preventative factor,” adds Dr. Feito-Fernandez. “Those who are physically fit who do get the infection, have far less complications. That’s what we’re seeing in the community.”

There’s a many health benefits to exercising regularly, regardless of whether COVID is involved, emphasizes Dr. Feito-Fernandez. Exercising regularly is “embedded within our advice and counsel on an outpatient basis,” she says.

“We usually say that it’s not just about COVID,” says Dr. Feito-Fernandez. “Exercise helps your immune system response to fight other viruses. And it has benefits in terms of your emotional and mental health. There’s obviously a ton of benefits in terms of cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, and for prevention of most serious chronic conditions, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and heart disease.”