The novel coronavirus has certainly changed our way of life. We are now working from home, avoiding social gatherings, and the handshake or greeting hug may be a thing of the past. What is not clear, however, is why some people become so ill that they eventually succumb to the virus, while others have little to no symptoms. While some of this can be explained by a person’s age and health prior to infection, there is some emerging evidence that suggests daily exercise can stand between you and a ventilator if you were to contract the illness.
Let’s talk about why this may be the case.
People exercise for many reasons. Maybe you want to lose weight, or maybe you want to gain muscle. There also are many benefits that one cannot physically see. While nearly every system of the body adapts through exercise, we will speak to the changes in the cardio-respiratory system, as this is the system that is predominantly affected by COVID-19.
COVID 19 is a virus that affects the respiratory system of those who are infected. Consistent exercise causes beneficial changes in the structure and function of this system that may aid in mitigating the virus’ effects. When we begin to exercise, there is suddenly an increase in the amount of oxygen that is needed by the working muscles. We get that oxygen by pulling surrounding air into our lungs. There, the oxygen from the air you just breathed is swapped out for the “used” air that is no longer of use to your body. The new air is carried by cells in your blood called red blood cells to the tissues that need it the most.
In response to the increased need for oxygen, you will increase how many times you breathe in and out, your heart rate will increase in order to help get the blood where it’s needed faster, and you will also “turn on” more muscles to help get the new air in and the old air out. As with anything, practice makes perfect. As we exercise consistently, we see improved efficiency of how well your body is able to take in new air, get it to your red blood cells and have those cells use the oxygen. How efficient your body is at this process is termed your VO2 max, which has been shown to be a big predictor of mortality if it is not optimal. If it is easier for us to use the oxygen that we need, we will be better equipped to deal with a condition which disrupts that process such as the coronavirus. Additionally, a study out of the University of Virginia found that exercise increases antioxidant production which may help the body avoid the severe complications that so many people are seeing.
While there is no cure for COVID-19 and there is no treatment that is 100% effective, the research says that daily bouts of exercise performed while maintaining proper social distancing can go a long way in avoiding a trip to ICU if you do contract the virus.