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The importance of exercise during a COVID outbreak

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

One of our Exercise Physiologist, Cooper Rice in this blog has broken down the importance of exercise during COVID outbreaks.

WA is seeing it’s largest increase in COVID cases since the initial lockdown in 2020. Face masks and vaccines can assist to not contracting COVID. However, new evidence is showing that consistent exercise and being relatively fit gives you a greater immunity and a better chance at tolerating the symptoms of COVID. This is similarly like doing prehab prior to surgery to minimise loss of strength or having an exercise program prior to chemotherapy to minimise fatigue levels.

People have better immune function with regular physical activity and people who are regularly active have a lower incidence, intensity of symptoms and mortality from various viral diseases. Regular physical activity reduces the systemic inflammation which is the main contributor to lung damage associated with COVID.

Exercise has benefits of cardiovascular, improved lung function and increase muscle strength. This is beneficial to numerous chronic diseases. However, in respect to COVID, this can limit the effects of fatigue and shortness of breath.

Even if you have not experienced COVID personally or through a loved one, it is not uncommon to experience psychological distress from the pandemic with its associated lockdowns, restrictions and mandates. Another study highlights how those who were physically inactive had greater mental health distress whether it was stress, anxiety, depression and social isolation.

Exercise releases endorphins that make us feel great. In comparison, exercise puts a stress on the body which increases our heart rate and breathing rate. This response due to exercise is similar to other potential stressful situations (e.g. work or school) which makes the body think that this stress response is familiar and allows us to tolerate those stressful situations better. This highlights that now is just as important time as ever to exercise.

So how much exercise do I need to do?

Healthy guidelines suggest that people should do a minimum of 150mins/week of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise. Vigorous exercise is a term that has been used often during the mask mandate, but this intensity of exercise varies from person to person. Moderate exercise is considered to be when you exercise but are still able to maintain a conversation; whereas vigorous exercise is talking in short sentences or single words during exercise.

One study highlighted that those who participated in regular physical activity (>150mins/wk of moderate to vigorous exercise) showed significantly decreased risk of hospitalisation, admission to ICU and death due to COVID compared to those who were physically inactive (<11mins of moderate to vigorous exercise). This study also highlighted that those who did some physical activity (11-149mins/week of moderate to vigorous exercise) also had a decreased risk in hospitalisation, admission to ICU and death due to COVID compared to those who were physically inactive. This further highlights that something is better than nothing.

So what exercises should I do to help my immunity and physiological distress?

Evidence shows that aerobic exercise (or “cardio”) has the most benefits on immunity and mental health compared to resistance training.

Some examples of aerobic exercises include:

- Walking

- Golf

- Cycling

- Soccer

- Footy

- Tennis

- Climbing

- Lap swimming

- Running

- Rowing

- Circuit training

- High intensity interval training (HIIT)

*Please note that the above list of exercises are in somewhat order of light to higher intensity aerobic exercise.

So should I exercise if I test positive to COVID and in isolation?

To put it simply… No!

With some mild illnesses some light exercise is usually fine, however some health professionals are suggesting that you should engage back into exercise at least a week post testing positive to COVID. This is because without adequate rest the illness can be prolonged or even exacerbate to other conditions such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart). Some health professionals suggest being even more conservative by waiting a week after being symptom free.

Experts say you are more likely to have persistent symptoms with more severe presentations of COVID. However, researchers are finding patients with mild COVID are developing long term fatigue. This may be due to people not resting adequately.

Experts suggest not to push through the illness, rest up for the given time in isolation and also steadily return back to exercise.

When can I start exercising again?

The general recommendations amongst health professionals is to wait at least a week after you first experience symptoms to resume to light activities. This may include a housework, gardening, slow walk, swimming at the beach, yoga or stretching. Start at 5-10mins before increasing your tolerance by 10mins each day to desired time you want to exercise for.

After a week of gentle exercise progress to moderate intensity exercise. This may be brisk walking or cycling. After a week of moderate exercise progress to vigorous exercise such as running or lap swimming.

It important to monitor your fatigue/exhaustion and breathlessness before increasing the duration or progressing to a harder exercise. Also monitor how you feel an hour post exercise and the next day. An individual should cease exercise if other symptoms occur such as abnormally fast heart rate in relation to intensity of exercise, dizziness, cough or chest pain and contact your doctor if you have any concerns.

Our team of Exercise Physiologists are here to support you through this period. If you would like assistance in creating an exercise plan, please click here or call 9284 4405 to make an initial assessment with one of our Exercise Physiologists.

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