Covid and exercise

Exercise and COVID have a complex connection. Both affect your lungs, airways and other organs, but the relationship isn’t as simple as it seems.

COVID is an unusual virus and general fitness doesn’t appear to predict likelihood of infection. However, as it’s a respiratory virus, progress is impeded by the cardiorespiratory fitness of the host. An efficient cardiorespiratory system can decrease your risk of hospitalization, ICU and death.

As the pandemic has progressed we have evolved from a “one case equals lockdown” mentality to a “learn to live with it” paradigm. Learning to live with COVID has many economic and social benefits for the country. However, the shift in messaging leaves a lot of people believing that unless you are immune-compromised, COVID is no more serious than a common cold.

One way COVID differs from a cold is the risk of long COVID. According to the World Health Organization, 10-20% of people with COVID will develop long COVID. Long COVID is defined as symptoms experienced beyond three months after initial diagnosis. Symptoms can include headaches, racing heart, fatigue, insomnia, breathlessness, gastrointestinal disturbances, muscle weakness, cognitive dysfunction and low mood.

There are many theories on who’s vulnerable to long COVID - for example type 2 diabetes, viruses in the blood (such as the Epstein-Barr virus) or autoantibodies (molecules that attack the body’s own tissues instead of foreign pathogens). There isn’t a relationship between initial severity of infection and likelihood of a prolonged condition. Nor is elite fitness a protective factor – athletes internationally are suffering long COVID. Those are the cases we read about because they’re newsworthy. But if long COVID affects even 10% of the COVID-infected population then it’s a significant issue.

Getting your health back on track after COVID is a delicate balancing act. Exercise is important for regaining muscle strength and cardiovascular capacity, and for resilience in case you ever get COVID again (more likely than most people think). But if you overdo it, you’re at risk of activating a predisposition that makes you vulnerable to long COVID. The World Health Organization has published specific guidelines on graduated return to exercise – they relate to perceived exertion at different phases of recovery. They should be considered alongside personalized medical advice. The WHO warns against continuously hitting the wall of PEM – post-exertion malaise. The stop-start cycle delays recovery and increases risk of complications.

COVID is a new virus and Omicron is a new variant so we’re far from having all the data. For many fortunate people it may have the minor severity and repercussions of the common cold. But there are no guarantees, and if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s to expect the unexpected. If you’re lucky enough to be in good health today then get some exercise to build your buffer. Don’t assume we’ll all get COVID eventually – likely only 50% of us will. Endeavor to be in that half. If you’re not, don’t be a hero with your recovery. It puts your health at risk and indicates to others that you’d expect the same of them.

The pandemic has been a physical and emotional marathon. There’s a constant stream of new information, new challenges and new norms to bed down. It’s an important time to promote and protect your health to optimize your resilience.

By: , Claire Bellingham of Les Mills Takapuna.

Issue 129 April 2022