For a long time, health experts have espoused the health benefits of regular exercise, and how being physically active significantly lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Now, studies show that taking a brisk walk or participating in other forms of moderate to vigorous exercises every week will also help protect you against falling ill with COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, including the flu.

“Those who exercise regularly are 2.5 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than those who don’t,” said Dr. Robert Sallis, a family and sports medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente Southern California. “Exercise is probably the single best thing you can do short of vaccination to protect yourself against COVID. For those who do get vaccinated, regular exercise makes the vaccine more effective.”

Sallis said a new study shows exercise amplifies the benefits of your next coronavirus vaccination or booster, even if you schedule your shot weeks or months from now. 

The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that involved almost 200,000 men and women in South Africa, found coronavirus vaccination effectively prevented severe illness in most of them. The study also found that vaccination worked best in people who exercised regularly, as they were about 25% less likely to be hospitalized with COVID than sedentary people, although everyone received the same vaccine.

“Daily physical activity is one of the most important things you can do to prevent severe COVID-19 outcomes,” noted Sallis, a reviewer of the British Journal of Sports Medicine study.

That’s especially true as we get older, Sallis explained. “As we age, our immune system loses some of its strength and becomes less effective,” he noted. 

“Exercise has been shown to help the immune system. You’re less likely to suffer from infectious diseases such as COVID, the flu or RSV if you exercise regularly. Physical activity will also heighten your reaction to the COVID and flu vaccines and create a better response because it heightens your immune system in a variety of ways.”

Sallis is also the lead author of Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48 440 adult patients published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2021. The study showed those who had regularly walked or otherwise worked out before falling ill were about half as likely to need hospitalization as sedentary people.

According to Sallis, widely accepted physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity. This can include a brisk walk for 30 minutes, five days a week.

 “If you don’t exercise, you should be concerned,” Sallis said. “The evidence seems to suggest that being physically active can be really protective with great benefits to your overall health.”

Sallis noted it’s advisable to open a discussion with your doctor before starting any exercise routine, however.

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