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Infectious Diseases

Updated 23 April 2020

Could exercise lower your risk of potentially fatal Covid-19 complication?

Regular exercise has many benefits, but during the coronavirus pandemic it may also be a protective measure against a fatal Covid-19 complication.

Regular exercise is crucial for optimum mental and physical health, but research has also shown that regular exercise could reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is a major Covid-19 complication.

review from the University of Virginia School of Medicine “strongly supports” the possibility that exercise can prevent or reduce the severity of ARDS, which affects between 3% and 17% of all patients with Covid-19.

Based on his findings, published in the journal Redox Biology, he strongly suggests that people exercise regularly. 

Right now, ARDS is proving to be one of the most serious complications of Covid-19. It is estimated that between 20% and 42% of people hospitalised with Covid-19 will develop ARDS, which is fatal for up to 45% of patients.

"All you hear now is either physical distancing or ventilator, as if all we can do is either avoiding exposure or relying on a ventilator to survive if we get infected," Yan stated. "The flip side of the story is that approximately 80% of confirmed Covid-19 patients have mild symptoms with no need of respiratory support. The question is why. Our findings about an endogenous antioxidant enzyme provide important clues and have intrigued us to develop a novel therapeutic for ARDS caused by Covid-19."

Exercise a powerful antioxidant for healthy lungs

Yan, the director of the Center for Skeletal Muscle Research at UVA's Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center, compiled a review of existing medical research, including his own, which investigated an antioxidant known as "extracellular superoxide dismutase" (EcSOD).

This antioxidant helps fight free radicals and protect our tissues. Our muscles produce this antioxidant naturally, but at a higher rate when we do regular cardiovascular exercise.

In the case of ARDS and other diseases, this antioxidant isn’t as freely produced, according to the research. When this antioxidant is blocked, it can worsen heart problems and escalate chronic conditions.

Not much needed

This doesn’t mean that you need to spend hours sweating to reap any benefits. Yan’s research shows that even one session of rigorous exercise promotes the production of this antioxidant.

“Regular exercise has far more health benefits than we know. The protection against this severe respiratory disease condition is just one of the many examples,” Yan said.

Could it be a treatment?

Seeing the protective benefits from EcSOD has made Yan realise that it could be used as a treatment against ARDS.

He reckons that gene therapy might be utilised to produce EcSOD in patients battling with serious Covid-19 complications.

Research in lab rats also showed that chronic kidney disease produced less damage to kidneys when treated with human EcSOD.

The research indicates that it may also prove beneficial against multi-organ failure, even though general antioxidants failed as a treatment. According to Yan, EcSOD may be a more targeted approach.

How to get more exercise in lockdown

If you're used to your regular exercise classes, gym sessions or morning runs, it might be hard to motivate yourself to get moving during a lockdown.

Here are some tips to help you get moving indoors:

  • Free online indoor workouts without equipment are abundant. Simply do a search, free some space and get going.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to lose weight or obtain unrealistic goals during this time – simply exercise with your mental and physical health in mind. Your workouts don't need to be complicated.
  • Use your exercise time as a break from work or household tasks. Focus solely on the workout, and use the time to forget about negative news headlines.
  • Exercise and nutrition go hand in hand to maintain a healthy immune system. Also pay attention to what you eat during this time. Focus on your health, rather than weight loss.

READ | How to eat for a robust immune system during the coronavirus pandemic

READ | How to DIY a circuit training workout at home

READ | Stay fit at home: best workout tips that are not too technical

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