Exercise and Covid-19: What’s the connection?
Reducing risk of getting sick with Covid-19 is top of mind for many, and other health-related concerns may also arise during this challenging time. For example, with gyms, fitness studios, and even parks closing down, how can we maintain healthy exercise routines at home? The good news is that there are many ways to stay fit at home, which can help keep your immune system robust.
Your immune system plays a key role in helping you fight off infectious disease. You can boost your immune health through regular, moderate physical activity and staying physically fit. Regular exercise helps to stimulate changes in different immune cell types that, together, have an anti-inflammatory effect and support immune defense activity.
Of course, Covid-19 is such a new disease that its links to the immune system, let alone exercise, haven’t been well studied yet. However, we can learn lessons about the role of exercise in supporting immune health by looking at other infectious diseases. For example, exercise and physical fitness is linked to lower risk for upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). In one study, researchers followed over 1000 adults during the winter and fall common cold seasons, tracking how often they exercised and how fit they were. They found that participants who engaged in an average of at least 5 aerobic exercise bouts for 20 min or more per week had 43% fewer days with a URTI than those who were largely sedentary (1 bout or less per week). Similarly, the number of days with a URTI was 46% lower among participants in the highest fitness tertile compared to those in the lowest.
In fact, one review of randomized controlled trials reported that “The magnitude of reduction in URTI symptom days with near-daily moderate exercise […] (typically 40%-50%) exceeds levels reported for most medications and supplements.”
Another study looked at the risk of suspected bacterial infections, as indicated by filling an antibiotic prescription. The researchers found that low recreational physical activity, such as going on walks or bike rides at least 4 hours a week, was associated with 10% lower risk during a one-year follow-up period, compared with sedentary behavior.
So what does a healthy, moderate exercise routine look like?
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans provides a great outline for a moderate exercise regimen. The good news is that such a regimen can support a wide range of beneficial health outcomes, not just your immune system.
For adults aged 18-64, this means:
– At least 150-300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or
– 75-150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or
– An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
If you’re new to exercise or have any health conditions, it may be a good idea to check in with your doctor before you jump into a new routine. Also, note that more is not necessarily better. During times of widespread sickness, it may be wise to hold off on strenuous, high-workload training (think marathon training) that can stress your body without allowing time for recovery. If you are already meeting these guidelines, then you’re doing great – don’t increase your exercise just to boost your immunity. If you do engage in high-workload exercise, consider taking extra precautions to support your recovery, such as increased carbohydrate intake.
Finding a new exercise routine at home
With gyms closed, the next question is: how can you get your exercise in? Here are some strategies to work out away from the gym:
- Go for a run or walk outdoors (as long as you are able to stay 6 feet away from others!). Being outside offers many other benefits, such as helping you get daylight exposure to help keep your circadian rhythm in line and support your sleep, and giving you access to nature, which can help reduce stress. Pro tip: Doing this at the beginning or end of your work day provides a natural division to separate your work and home life, which can help you detach and recharge when you aren’t working.
- Set up your own home gym. You can do a lot with inexpensive equipment such as a mat, a set of weights, and a jump rope! If you can’t access them, try a makeshift alternative with items in your home, like gallon jugs.
- Stream online classes to bring the gym home! There are many sites that offer online video classes (check out some BuzzFeed recommendations here), and lots of studios are now live-streaming classes, too.
Working from home might even make it easier to meet your exercise needs, if you consider reallocating time from your commute or lunch break.
Working from home might also be negatively affecting your physical activity without you realizing it. At the office, you probably stand up and get away from your desk to head to a meeting, sit down for lunch with coworkers, or ask your manager a question. But at home, you have less reason to get up. Here are some ways to work more physical activity into your WFH life:
- Use an activity-permissive desk, like a sit-stand desk. You can even improvise one using books or by stacking a smaller table onto your desk.
- Take short walking breaks – especially after lunch when walking can help reduce your blood glucose response. Breaks are also important for staying focused!
- Use a wearable that sends you reminder notifications if you’re inactive.
Remember that integrating physical activity into your workday isn’t just important for keeping you healthy during a pandemic! These tips and strategies will serve you well even after you return to normal working life.
Edited by Radhika Singh