Since the onset of the pandemic, scientists across the globe are scrambling to remediate the obnoxious effects of the coronavirus. While there have been imminent breakthroughs in virology and the creation of a vaccine from a stretch, there have also been studies into how seemingly simple routine changes like exercising can help combat the associated risks of contracting the virus. A recent study claims that severe Covid illness can be mitigated by physical activity.
This new research by a group of eminent researchers makes a probable case for combating covid-19 by engaging in some physical activity in any range between mild to vigorous.
Why did the researchers choose Kaiser Medical Center for their research?
The study was conducted at the Department of Family and Sports Medicine, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Fontana, California. The reason for doing so was that this medical facility had been routinely keeping the record of the physical activities of its patients since 2009. Visiting patients are asked about what they do to keep themselves physically fit, anything from brisk walking to heavy lifting, which is then included as a part of their medical report. Consequently, the researchers had readily available primary data on which to perform their research and analysis.
How does physical activity (PA) help in strengthening the immune system?
Physicians around the globe have gravely stressed the importance of physical activity in lessening the severe effects of all sorts of diseases. Physical activity gives our immune system a boost, thereby making our immune system robust and poised to fight with antigens. One of the reasons most obese people are succumbing to covid-19 is due to the lack of a response/attack from their immune system, as their entire immune system is worked up in combating the inflammation caused by obesity. Hence, this overworked immune system can not respond to foreign threats like viruses as its entire efficiency is utilized in keeping the inflammation at bay.
Similarly, obesity or the condition of being overweight has also been described as one of the risk factors that may cause severe coronavirus illness and hospitalization.
WHO has also espoused exercise guidelines for people with obesity and underlying medical conditions. Moreover, physicians also recommend constant physical workouts to their patients for cardiovascular diseases, several cancers, type two diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, and to ward off mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Physical fitness has also been found to invigorate antibody reactions to vaccines.
How does physical activity (PA) help with the covid-19?
The aforementioned research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, has found that physical inactivity is directly linked with increased covid illness. In some cases, the absence of physical activity may even cause death. The conclusion was reached after the medical record of almost 50,000 Californian patients of covid-19 was checked to know whether the patients engaged in some physical activity before they contracted the virus.
Two further pieces of research have also been recently published, which have also linked physical activity with reduced risk of severe covid-19 illness. One of which was published in the International Journal of Obesity last February talked about how walking pace (an indicator of physical activity) and obesity, in combination, were linked with severe covid-19 illness (resulting in the death of the patients). The study found a positive correlation between covid related fatalities and individuals who were obese and overweight. However, patients who were brisk walkers showed a less strong positive correlation vis a vis covid-19 than patients who were normal or slow walkers.
So, in essence, brisk walkers who were also obese had a far lesser chance of dying from covid-19 than slow walkers who did not have obesity. This was a surprise as obesity has been called a risk factor for covid-19. That is, patients who are obese have a far greater chance of suffering from covid related illness. Nevertheless, physical inactivity has not yet been classified as a risk factor.
Another study which was also recently published, made a point for reduced muscle strength being an independent risk factor for covid-19 related hospitalizations. Muscle strength is built by constant physical activity, which can include anything from lifting weights to dance. They used grip strength as an indicator for overall muscle strength. Even after controlling for other risk factors, the researchers found that in adults of age 50 years or more, reduced muscle strength can lead to hospitalization after contraction of covid-19.
The method employed for the study
The researchers pinned down all the patients who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus between the first of January to the 21st of October of the last month. Afterward, they checked whether the same patients had at least thrice recorded their exercise pattern with the Kaiser Medical Center between 19 March 2018 to 21 October 2020. The record of exercise patterns is called a vital sign measurement at the facility.
The researchers set out to find a possible link between physical inactivity and hospitalization, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admission, and even death. The physical activity was divided into three categories based on its duration, .i.e, for how long did a patient exercise? Consistently inactive patients exercised for 0–10 min per week, patients who were somewhat active exercises for 11–149 min per week, and those who were consistently meeting guideline exercises for 150+ min per week. The median age of the sample was 49, and 62 percent of the sample were women. Also, the BMI was calculated to be 31.
The study, however, was self-reported, but the researchers made sure to conduct multivariate regression analysis. They also adjusted for demographic changes and known risk factors to ensure that increased covid related illness was caused by physical inactivity.
What were the results?
The people in the consistently inactive group were twice and a half and twice times more likely to die and get hospitalized due to severe covid illness, respectively. When compared with the somewhat active group, the same group exceeded the deaths in the somewhat active group by 30 percent and the number of hospitalized patients by 20 percent.
The study stipulates that being consistently inactive is by far the strongest risk factor for severe corona-caused illness, with the associated risk that comes only below the age and the patient’s history of organ transplant. It was also clear that amongst the modifiable risk factors (risks which our actions like physical inactivity can modify), physical inactivity came top of the list, beating smoking, diabetes, hypertension, etc.
What do these findings mean for already identified risk factors?
CDC is a federal health agency in the United States that has come up with its list of risk factors that can cause severe covid-19 illness and death. It has kept adding to its list of risk factors. For instance, on 1st April, it expanded the list to include Cancer, Chronic kidney disease, chronic lung diseases, etc., as possible risk factors. However, now in the light of new evidence, it seems suitable for the agency to include physical inactivity as a possible risk factor for severe covid illness. It has been shown to exacerbate the harmful effects of the virus and can even cause death.
What are the limitations of this study?
The study has also got some serious problems chipping away at its credence. First of all, the research is a result of observations. This means that there is no way whatsoever to say for sure that the more one exercises, the less the chances of severe covid-19 illness. A common pithy one-liner used in statistics is that correlation does not equal causation. While more physical exercise correlates with lesser chances of death from covid-19, there has not been any evidence to show how this really happens. Also to note is the fact that physical activity by itself builds no immunity against the virus.
To conclude, Covid-19 has affected every walk of life for the worse. Nevertheless, there has been significant progress in virology and the research into probable cures and remedies for the adverse outcomes of a virus-like covid-19. Humans have now perfected the art of creating mRNA vaccines which is nothing short of a breakthrough in making vaccines more effective.
Furthermore, while we do not know for sure whether covid-19 can be stymied by constant physical exercise, what we do know is that physical mobility has been shown to increase our immune system’s efficiency against diseases of various sorts (of which covid-19 may be one). And we also know there are no bad outcomes or side effects of having a workout routine. (Although it may, according to research, stop the juggernaut of coronavirus illness).