Back to Fitness: Can Exercise Prevent Coronavirus?

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John Andersen

Coronavirus is coming. By the time this is published, I am guessing that the U.S. will be receiving more and more reports of positive cases and the media is going to have a field day.

Coronavirus is scary only because it is new and unknown. However, remember to keep things in perspective—most major national news outlets are going to sensationalize anything, creating unnecessary panic and worry, in my humble opinion.

From the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (as of Feb 20), the new Coronavirus (COVID-19), has led to more than 75,000 illnesses and more than 2000 deaths, primarily in mainland China.  Now compare that to the flu. So far, the coronavirus has nothing on the flu! This flu season, in the U.S. alone, the flu has caused an estimated 26 million illnesses and 14,000 deaths, according to the CDC! Why aren’t we freaking out about the flu?! 

As this new virus enters our country, we should listen carefully, but with a critical mind to the information we are hearing about coronavirus. We should be prepared for another respiratory illness to sweep through our area but also keep things in perspective and not panic.

So, what can we do to prevent Coronavirus? There is no vaccine available. Well…we can exercise!

I’m going to wager that those of us who exercise regularly (I’m going to say “regularly” is an average of at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise five times per week) feel that we are healthier and less likely to get illnesses such as the common cold and flu than if we didn’t exercise. But that’s not very scientific, is it? In fact, that’s downright self-validating and obnoxious!

Besides the anecdotal evidence that regular exercisers will be more than happy to share with you, there is a lot of evidence-based scientific literature showing how regular exercise can prevent or reduce the severity of contagious respiratory illnesses such as the common cold. One of the most favorable studies is a 2011 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by David Nieman and company out of North Carolina. In this study, they examined 1,000 people through a 12-week winter/fall season tracking respiratory signs and aerobic activity, as well as other data. This study showed that people with regular aerobic activity (5 or more days/week) had almost half the number of days of upper respiratory infection compared to people living a more sedentary lifestyle. This study also demonstrated a 30-40% reduction in severity of clinical signs in the regular exercisers versus the sedentary folks (Nieman DC, Henson DA, Austin MD, et al.  Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults.  British Journal of Sports Medicine 2011; 45: 987-992).

A quick google or PubMed search will find many more peer-reviewed articles showing correlations to regular exercise and less frequent/less severe respiratory illness during cold and flu season.

I would like to add one more piece of data to this persuasion—common sense! As humans, we are meant to be active and moving and when we aren’t, our bodies don’t work like they should.  Exercising makes you feel good and increases your health, so of course regular exercise seems like it would correlate to less illness.  

Why? There are many postulated reasons. When we exercise, our increase in circulation and body temperature may help the immune system function at a higher level, even temporarily, but the regular bouts of exercise can raise the average level of immune function. Also, when we exercise, we are inherently causing some inflammation as a response to the stress on our bodies. Inflammation can often be a good thing and can lead to better immune function against invading pathogens. Last, regular exercise makes us more fit and we know that excessive fat and cortisol, associated with being out of shape, are associated with uncontrolled inflammation, which can foster disease states.  

I don’t really feel like I need to hammer more on this point, it makes sense and has good science to back it up. So, let’s do this! Coronavirus is coming!

Don’t worry if you are in shape or not, if you are overweight or not, if you have cool-looking athletic wear or not. If you want to keep Crozet a healthy place and prevent us all from dying from the coronavirus, I want you to start getting outside for some aerobic exercise, 5 days a week, for at least 30 minutes, starting today! Don’t say you’re too busy, because you’re not. Don’t say you’re too tired, because you’re not. Don’t say that now isn’t a good time, because it is.

Almost everyone can get outside and walk for 30 minutes. Many of you can run or bike or swim. If you’re bored, there are about a million podcasts and songs for you to listen to. Or you could use the time to get unplugged and let your mind wander.  

What can we do to protect ourselves, our families, and our community from the coronavirus pandemic? Exercise! It will probably be helpful and you’ll be glad you did.

Last point—should you continue exercising if you do get sick? If you have the flu, should you raise your poor self up and go out for a run? Probably not. If you do come down with something, stressing your body by exercising is probably not going to be a rewarding or productive. Rest up, but return to activity as soon as you can.

In all seriousness, I don’t mean to make light of the coronavirus outbreak. However, we have seen worse, we will be okay, and exercising regularly truly is one of the proactive things we can do to keep ourselves healthy and safer.

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