Although COVID-19 still threatens our health, staying true to a fitness routine may be one of the best ways to protect ourselves from the worst outcomes, according to a recent study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Researchers at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center examined health records from 48,440 adults diagnosed with COVID. Patients were organized into three groups — consistently inactive, somewhat active, and consistently active — based on their self-reported physical activity over the previous two years.
Only 6.4 percent of the patients were consistently meeting physical-activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week, and 14.4 percent were inactive, reporting a maximum of 10 minutes of weekly exercise. The majority fell into the “somewhat active” group.
After controlling for factors including age, race, and underlying medical conditions, the researchers found that the least active patients were 2.26 times more likely to be hospitalized, 73 percent more likely to require intensive care, and roughly 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID compared with regular exercisers.
And some activity was better than none: Compared with those who engaged in some activity, mostly sedentary patients were 20 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 32 percent more likely to die as a result of the virus.
The researchers had anticipated finding a relationship between physical activity and illness severity, but the study’s lead author, Robert Sallis, MD, was surprised by the strength of the associations.
“Even after we controlled for variables such as obesity and smoking in the analysis,” Sallis notes, “we still saw that inactivity was strongly associated with much higher odds of hospitalization, ICU admission, and death compared with moderate physical activity or any activity at all.”
In fact, except for age and a history of organ transplants, the results suggest that physical inactivity may pose one of the most significant risks to COVID patients — even more than commonly cited factors such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Despite the report’s limitations — physical activity levels were self-reported and the observational study doesn’t prove a causal relationship — the findings offer substantial support for the protective effects of regular exercise.
“We are hopeful,” Sallis says, “that the message that a little exercise can go a long way will be heard and acted upon.”
By the Numbers
14.4% Segment of study participants who reported getting less than 10 minutes of weekly exercise. The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes.
2.26 Number of times more likely that the least active patients were to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, compared with regular exercisers.