Regular physical activity may help protect you from severe COVID-19—and could even keep you from getting infected, according to a research review published Aug. 22 in British Journal of Sports Medicine.
“It’s time to consider exercise as medicine,” says co-author Yasmin Ezzatvar, a doctor of physical therapy and a nursing instructor at Spain’s University of Valencia. “This is more evidence to really affirm that.”
These 16 published studies were examined by the researchers to determine if there was any association between COVID-19 and physical activity. The studies involved more than 1.8 millions adults and relied heavily on participant self-reporting about their exercise habits. Many of the studies were completed in 2020, 2021 and before COVID-19 was widely available.
Compared to people who didn’t exercise much, active people were about 36% less likely to be hospitalized and 43% less likely to die if they caught the virus. People who got at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous movement each week—the amount recommended by U.S. public-health officials—had the best protection, the researchers found.
It is evident that this finding has been made in some cases. Good health is closely linked with longevity. Exercise can be used to prevent and manage chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
More surprisingly, active people were also about 11% less likely to get infected compared to those who were more sedentary, the researchers concluded—which suggests that exercise itself may be protective.
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“Regular physical activity can contribute to a more effective immune response,” Ezzatvar says. “It can provide enhanced immunity to [many] infections, not only COVID.”
The paper does not provide proof that exercise is causing these effects—only that it’s linked to better COVID-19 outcomes. Other explanations could include differences in lifestyles, viral exposure and socioeconomic status, as well as different lifestyles between active and sedentary individuals. Most of the included studies were also published well before Omicron became dominant and when most people were not vaccinated, so it’s difficult to generalize the findings to the present.
Another caveat is that if your exercise routine happens to include COVID-19-infected people, it may be difficult to keep yourself healthy. A small study published in May found that someone doing high-intensity exercise emits about 132 times as many aerosols per minute as they do at rest—which is bad news if your treadmill neighbor happens to have the virus.
Still, exercise is “100%” recommended for most people, Ezzatvar says. “It is good for your health—not only for COVID [protection], but also your mental health and your physical health.”
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