We all know exercising is good for our health – it can reduce the risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50% and lower risk of early death by up to 30%.

But a new study has found it could also reduce our risk of developing severe Covid-19 infection or dying from the disease.

Patients with Covid-19 who were consistently inactive during the two years before the pandemic were more likely to be admitted to hospital, require intensive care, and die than patients who had consistently met physical activity guidelines, the study found.

As a risk factor for severe disease, physical inactivity was surpassed only by advanced age and a history of organ transplant, researchers said.

That’s not to say if you’re incredibly fit, you’re protected from the virus, though. There have been cases of very active people developing long Covid and taking months to recover, so it’s still important to follow guidelines. 

For the study, researchers wanted to explore how much of a role physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle played a part in developing severe Covid.

They compared outcomes in 48,440 adults with confirmed Covid-19 infection between January and October 2020. The average age was 47; nearly two thirds were women (62%) and their average BMI was 31.

All participants had reported their level of physical activity at least three times between March 2018 and March 2020 at outpatient clinics. This was classified as consistently inactive (0-10 minutes per week); some activity (11-149 minutes); or consistently meeting physical activity guidelines (150+ minutes).

Overall, 7% were consistently meeting physical activity guidelines and 15% were consistently inactive, with the remainder reporting some activity. The study found 9% of the total were admitted to hospital; around 3% required intensive care; and 2% died.

After taking into account potentially influential factors – such as race, age, and underlying medical conditions – patients with Covid-19 who were consistently physically inactive were more than twice as likely to be admitted to hospital as those who clocked up 150+ minutes of physical activity every week. They were also 73% more likely to require intensive care, and 2.5 times more likely to die. 

Patients who were consistently inactive were 20% more likely to be admitted to hospital, 10% more likely to require intensive care, and 32% more likely to die than the patients who were doing some physical activity regularly.

The researchers note it’s an observational study and, as such, they can’t establish a cause. Regardless, they point out: “It is notable that being consistently inactive was a stronger risk factor for severe Covid-19 outcomes than any of the underlying medical conditions and risk factors identified [by The Centers for Disease Control] except for age and a history of organ transplant.

“In fact, physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor across all outcomes, compared with the commonly cited modifiable risk factors, including smoking, obesity, diabetes, hypertension [high blood pressure], cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

They conclude: “We recommend public health authorities inform all populations that, short of vaccination and following public health safety guidelines such as social distancing and mask use, engaging in regular [physical activity] may be the single most important action individuals can take to prevent severe Covid-19 and its complications, including death.”

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