You asked: Can exercise protect against COVID-19?

April 28, 2020

Can exercising help protect you against COVID-19? And what’s the best way to stay fit during the coronavirus pandemic?

As millions of families around the world join in with Joe Wicks’ online workouts during the COVID-19 pandemic, we find out whether exercise can help to protect you against coronavirus or becoming seriously ill. 

In our previous blog posts, we’ve covered what you can eat to support your immunity and stay healthy during the coronavirus epidemic. But it might surprise you to learn that there is another way to boost your immunity to infections like COVID-19: exercise. 

We asked our expert Dr Claire Steves - a senior clinical lecturer at King's College London and a geriatrician at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS foundation trust - whether exercise can help boost immunity, how much exercise we need right now, and what’s the best way to stay fit during a pandemic.

How physical activity impacts the immune system

“Exercise has a major effect on the immune system - it’s a fact we have known for decades,” Claire explains.

Multiple studies have now linked moderate exercise with decreased rates of influenza, pneumonia, and other infections, as well as chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. 

Staying active supports your immune system in a variety of ways, including reducing inflammation, increasing the presence of innate immune cells, and positively effecting your gut microbiome, all of which support your body’s defense mechanisms. 

Regular exercise has also been shown to improve your ability to regulate your immune system, which may be essential for avoiding the severe symptoms of COVID-19 caused by immune system over-reactions.

Still, it’s important to remember that although older people and those with existing health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill or die with COVID-19, being physically fit is not a fail-safe protection against the disease. 

A number of seemingly fit and healthy younger people have also succumbed to coronavirus infection, and we’re hoping that our research with the Twins UK study and other large groups like the Harvard-led Nurses’ Health Study will help to explain why.

While the best way to protect yourself against coronavirus infection is to follow government guidelines - including regularly washing your hands and avoiding physical contact with others -  judicious exercise may well also help to keep you healthy during this time.

You don’t need to run a marathon in your back yard

Claire highlights that physical activity can positively impact your immune system in a relatively short space of time, so if you don’t already have a keep-fit regimen, it’s worth starting one now. 

The latest research suggests that a single workout can have beneficial effects on your immunity, and regular sessions add up quickly to boost your immune system.  

But exercise doesn’t need to be long, intense, or unpleasant to be effective. Studies have shown that bouts of moderate activities such as walking, jogging, or cycling lasting less than an hour can provide a range of immune benefits

In contrast, substantial sudden increases in physical activity can have adverse effects on your body's defenses and increase the risk of picking up an injury. So maybe don’t leap straight into a back yard marathon or indoor Everest hike unless you’re already in good condition.

Importantly, physical activity is great for your mental as well as your physical health

Moving your body in a way that you enjoy can provide a much-needed positive boost to help you get through this difficult time. 

How can I stay active during the lockdown?

Gyms and sports clubs are closed. Swimming pools are shut. And we don’t know about you, but climbing up and down the stairs in our homes during isolation does not sound like our idea of a good time. Luckily, there are lots of much more enjoyable ways to get moving during the lockdown.

“If you are running, cycling, or just taking a walk, make sure you’re keeping to your local social distancing guidelines to protect yourself and those around you", says Claire. "There are also loads of online exercises for all different types of people, from sedentary or very frail to kids or hardcore fitness fanatics,” she adds.

And finally, how much activity do you need to stay healthy in the current situation? 

"I think half an hour of exercise a day is an excellent thing to be aiming for at the moment,” Claire says.

If you can’t or don’t want to be active outdoors right now, here are some of our favorite ‘stay in and work out’ resources:

Whatever your level, there will be something that helps to get you moving. And don’t forget that putting on your favorite tunes and having a stay-at-home dance party counts as exercise too!

The lowdown on lockdown exercise

  • Exercise is a great way to support your immune system and mental health
  • Workouts don’t need to be long or intense to be effective
  • Walking, cycling and running are great outdoor options if available
  • If you can't go out, there's a vast range of home workout resources to suit every age and ability

Explore our Research Updates blog for the latest news and results from our COVID-19 symptom tracker and more tips on how to stay healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.

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