Physical exercise offers positive health benefits in relation to COVID-19 outcomes

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A new study published in Plus one found that physical activity positively affects the prognosis of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

To learn: The health benefits of physical exercise in the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from mainland China. Credit: GP PIXSTOCK/Shutterstock

Results showed comparatively higher cure rates and lower morbidity and mortality associated with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection in areas where regular physical activity was prevalent before the pandemic.

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Regular physical activity is a proven measure to strengthen the immune system. Stronger immunity provides stronger protection and immune response against invading pathogens, for example in fighting viral diseases. In addition, regular physical activity is an effective way to treat most chronic diseases and has a beneficial effect on physical and mental health.

Physical activity improves the neurological system, bones and muscles, cardiopulmonary and circulatory function, and cognitive abilities while reducing the risk of disease development and premature death. Regular exercise is routinely recommended for the prevention and treatment of metabolic and other chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes (T2D), high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and cancer, as well as depression and anxiety. It also helps in boosting the immune system, improving immunological function, and reducing the likelihood, duration, and severity of infections.

Against the background of the current COVID-19 pandemic, regular physical activity could potentially strengthen the immune system’s resistance to SARS-CoV-2.

Despite the high success rates of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection and reducing the risk of severe symptoms and critical conditions, the spread of the virus is far from eradicated. This is due to the rapid evolution of the pathogen, which gives the viral mutants or newer variants of concern (VOCs) higher transmission and immune evasion properties.

Many people are against COVID-19 vaccines; Some of the reasons are that vaccination carries additional dangers, including a high mortality rate among the elderly. Other negative effects of vaccines are the acute symptoms after vaccination; the inability to eradicate the pathogen and its spread; and limited effectiveness against infection by the newer SARS-CoV-2 VOCs, such as the Omicron variant. Inequalities in access to vaccines and limited coverage in certain areas of developing countries have also contributed to low global immunization coverage.

Therefore, strengthening the immune system can be a crucial step in containing the pandemic and reducing the rate of symptomatic illness in the population. In addition, to make large-scale COVID-19 management feasible and to address the global health infrastructure deficits that emerged in the earlier phases of the pandemic, there is a need to complement pharmacological interventions with non-pharmacological ones.

Additionally, to promote good health and maintain a healthy lifestyle, it is important to recognize the benefits of physical activity.

The study

This study examined the impact of physical activity on public health – during the COVID-19 outbreak, using morbidity, death and cure rates as health outcomes of interest.

Here, 279 Chinese cities were analyzed at the prefecture level. The survey covered all provinces in mainland China and most prefectural cities. Physical activity panel data was collected between January and March 2020.

Using the ordinary least squares method, multiple linear regression was used to estimate the coefficient of physical activity (PEx). Information on PEx was collected from three sources – the National Fitness Development Survey Bulletin, the National Fitness Report and the National Fitness Action Program.

The results

The results showed that regular physical activity could improve the recovery rate from COVID-19. The robustness test revealed that the regression coefficients of PEx on morbidity and mortality remained significantly negative and those related to the cure rate remained significantly positive.

The results suggest that physical activity may provide more health benefits in terms of cure rates and morbidity and mortality in high-risk COVID-19 locations than in low-risk locations. Meanwhile, multiple factors such as public health initiatives, vaccine availability and coverage, demographics, environmental variables, and medical resources are influencing COVID-19 outcomes.

The study results are consistent with previous findings on the benefits of physical activity in boosting immunity and improving health. In high-risk settings, PEx has a greater impact on morbidity, mortality, and cure rates; the differential benefit appears to be greatest with respect to morbidity.

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The results suggest that individuals who were regularly physically active before a widespread COVID-19 outbreak had better disease prognosis and better health-related outcomes, particularly in areas with a larger outbreak. Therefore, regular physical activity can be an effective step in future epidemic prevention.

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