Health & Fitness

How exercise protects against severe covid-19 complications

The exercises can help people remain healthy by boosting their immunity
The exercises can help people remain healthy by boosting their immunity, which is essential for averting infection or tackling the coronavirus disease that does not have a cure yet. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In a bid to cope with normal life disruptions brought about by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, most Kenyans are slowly adopting new lifestyles.

The “stay at home” recommendations aimed at enhancing social distancing so as to halt the spread of the disease are making people stay indoors for longer hours than they normally would.

And with no restaurants or other public social places to go to, most people have resorted to outdoor exercises such as jogging or brisk walking that allow them to beat the monotony and fatigue of staying cooped up in their houses all day.

"I was never an exercise person, but now I have to jog daily, in the mornings or evenings to remain sane. I have noticed that it helps to boost my spirits and deal with all the stress that Covid-19 has brought," says Mercy, a resident of Kilimani Estate in Nairobi.

Many Kenyans seem to be following in her footsteps, judging by the large number of people that can be seen on the road - occupying pedestrian lanes or paths - while jogging or walking - during the mornings and evenings. Beyond these stress management benefits, research also shows that exercise can help to forestall complications associated with the coronavirus disease.


A new study, published in the “Redox Biology Scientific Journal”, has found that regular exercise may reduce the risk of lung problems leading to severe breathing complications (acute respiratory distress syndrome), which is a major cause of death in patients with Covid-19.

The study, which was based on an in-depth review of existing medical research, indicated that available evidence strongly support the possibility that exercise can prevent, or at least reduce the gravity of breathing complications among [email protected] people.

The most common symptoms of Covid-19 are fever, dry cough, and tiredness. Some patients may also have body aches, nasal congestion, sore throat or diarrhoea.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that most people infected with Covid-19 will present with fewer or no symptoms at all.

Indeed, about 80 percent recover from the illness without needing hospital treatment.

However, around one out of every five people suffering from the condition will become seriously ill and develop lung complications leading to breathing difficulties.

Even though anyone can develop severe illness, those at high risk include older people and individuals with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, lung problems, diabetes or cancer.

These individuals will require hospitalisation with oxygen or ventilation support.

With the current shortage of health facilities in Kenya that can provide such specialised care, the Covid-19 health benefits offered by physical activity come in handy.

The exercises can also help people remain healthy by boosting their immunity, which is essential for averting infection or tackling the coronavirus disease that does not have a cure yet.

"All you hear now is either social distancing or ventilator, as if all we can do is either avoiding exposure or relying on a ventilator to survive if we get infected," said Dr Zhen Yan, the lead author of the study and director of the Centre for Skeletal Muscle Research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Based on the findings of his study, Dr Yan urges people to embrace physical activity and exercise more while still practising safe social distancing.

“We cannot live in isolation forever. Regular exercise has far more health benefits than we know. The protection against severe respiratory disease is just one of the many examples.”

The research indicated that the protective benefits of exercise come from substances produced by the body, which are known as antioxidants. They help defend body cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals.

There are many types of antioxidants, but the specific type that is increased by physical activity is known as Extracellular Superoxide dismutase. It is naturally made in the muscles but the production is enhanced by cardiovascular exercise.

According to the study, a decrease in this antioxidant is observed in people suffering from several ailments including acute lung disease, ischemic heart problems and kidney failure.

Past research done in mice also indicates that that blocking the production of the antioxidant worsens heart problems, while increasing it has beneficial effects.

A decrease in the substance is also associated with chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis (inflammation of body joints).

Based on the findings of the study, even a single session of exercise can increase the production of the antioxidant, which boosts overall health.

The researchers suggest that the antioxidant could serve as a potential treatment for lung problems leading to severe breathing complications.

They note that Gene therapy, for example, might one day be used to increase production of the antioxidant so that its protective presence is enhanced in the lungs of patients battling Covid-19. This would increase survival rates.