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September 23, 2023

Protect Yourself Against COVID-19 with Exercise

protect yourself against COVID
Artwork courtesy of Pixabay

Protect Yourself Against COVID with Exercise

A recent review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports suggests that exercise may be the most important “medicine” for COVID 19. This should not be too surprising given everything we know about the positive effects exercise has on the immune system and cardiovascular and neurologic health.

Vaccinations and boosters, hand washing, social distancing, and masking have not proven to be as effective as originally thought with vaccinated people still getting COVD ranging from mild symptoms to needing hospitalization.

With new mutations evolving perhaps it is time to rethink our strategy and some researchers think exercise should be viewed as a first-line defense against COVID and a treatment for those suffering from long COVID syndrome.

Now that you know what this article is about, what is missing from the photo at the top of the article?  There is no symbol to represent exercise. We see symbols for pills, pill containers and needles and syringes.

This failure to recognize the benefits of exercise is a major failing of traditional medicine – one this website hopes to correct. That’s one reason we have “180” in the name of this site. We need to pivot away from relying so heavily on drugs if we are ever to improve our health.

Impact of Exercise on COVID

The review in Current Sports Medicine Reports indicates that those consistently seeing exercise guidelines can reduce:

  • their risk of hospitalization from COVID by 42%.
  • their risk of being admitted to the ICU with COVID by 38%.
  • their risk of death from COVID by up to 83%.

These are impressive risk reductions and apply to people across major demographic subgroups and those with and without chronic disease.

Exercise Guidelines

The question now is how much exercise do you need to protect yourself against COVID and the complications of COVID.

The recommended exercise guidelines (not just for COVID) are 150 minutes a week of moderately intense exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity weekly exercise. That alone reduces the risk of getting COVID 11% to 22%.

Moderate exercise requires 3 to 6 METs of effort.  MET stands for “metabolic efforts of task”. The body uses 1 MET for breathing and other basic functions. Activities above 7 METS are considered high intensity.

Examples of moderate exercise include the following”

  • Brisk walking
  • Easy jogging
  • Walking or jogging on a treadmill
  • Using an elliptical trainer
  • Bicycling under 10 miles per hour, on level ground or with few hills
  • Swimming leisurely
  • Water aerobics
  • Ballroom dancing and line dancing
  • Softball and baseball
  • Volleyball
  • Doubles tennis
  • Gardening and some housework, such as vacuuming.

Examples of High-Intensity exercise include:

  • Hiking
  • Jogging at 6 mph
  • Shoveling
  • Carrying heavy loads
  • Bicycling fast (14-16 mph)
  • Basketball game
  • Soccer game
  • Tennis singles

See our articles, Exercise and Nutrition in a Nutshell and What are the Health Benefits of Exercise

How Exercise Improves Immune Function

Exercise has positive health effects at the cellular level that will enable to protect yourself against COVID. Molecules called exercises are released during exercise from skeletal muscle, white and brown adipose tissues, neurons, the heart, and liver in response to exercise.

Exerkines come in many forms and include hormones, proteins, metabolites, and nucleic acids and play a role in improving cardiovascular health, metabolic health, immune health, and neurologic health even in the absences of COVID.  In individuals with COVID these exerkines lessen the effects of COVID 19 and long COVID on organ systems.

Exercise has anti-inflammatory effects which alleviates systemic heart inflammation (as in myocarditis) seen in COVID 19. A big impact of COVID 19 is on the cardiopulmonary system and those exercise simply have healthier cardiopulmonary systems.

Cardiovascular System

Exerkines released during exercise promote blood vessel growth and production which facilitates cardiac tissue repair while improving blood pressure and reducing risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Pulmonary System

Exercise improves pulmonary function and its ability to deal with respiratory infections. The COVID 19 virus enters the body through the respiratory tract. Once inside the respiratory tract the virus multiplies and spreads.

Improving aerobic capacity through exercise improves immune function in three ways:

  1. Exercise increases the amount and function of immune cells which include T-lymphocytes, neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes.
  2. Exercise increase immunoglobulin IgA which fights lung infections.
  3. Exercise regulates inflammatory proteins to fight lung infections and inhibit reduction in lung function should a lung infection occur.

When we exercise we move the immune cells more robustly through the circulatory system and to our tissues. Exercise also improve T-cell function which is an important part of our immune system.

Exercise also has anti-oxidative effects by releasing myokines which are proteins that protect against oxidative stress

Nervous System

Exerkines enhance the growth and development of brain tissue and improve memory and cognition protecting agains the neurologic consequences of COVID 19  and long COVID. Neurologic consequences of COVID 19 include:

  • headaches
  • loss of smell and taste
  • hemorrhagic stroke
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • ringing of the ears
  • vertigo
  • hearing loss
  • anxiety and depression

Exercise releases stem cells which repair damaged tissue caused by COVID 19.

Exercise is Medicine

Exercise is medicine and could be the best thing you can do to protect yourself against COVID. There is not a pharmaceutical medication out there that does all that exercise can do – and we just touched upon the benefits of exercise when it comes to COVID. Plus, exercise has few side effects and is relatively inexpensive.

Protect yourself against COVID and start to exercise if you are not already a regular exerciser.


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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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