The availability of vaccines has brought hope for the end of the pandemic. Yet COVID deaths and cases are still surging around the world. As we try to immunise the world, the most likely scenario for the next few years is that COVID-19 will be like other infectious diseases, such as flu, that we will need to continuously manage and protect ourselves against.
One of the best ways to do that is by being physically active.We already know that physical activity is one of most effective ways to prevent chronic diseases, along with diet and quitting smoking. A study from 2008 found that physical inactivity is responsible for more than five million premature deaths every year.
Now, a new systematic review of evidence by me and my colleagues shows that regular physical activity strengthens the human immune system, reduces the risk of falling ill and dying from infectious disease by more than a third and significantly increases the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns. This has important implications for pandemic responses.
In our study, we systematically gathered and reviewed all available evidence relating to the effect of physical activity on the risk of falling ill and dying from infectious diseases such as pneumonia – a frequent cause of death from COVID-19 – on the functioning of the immune system and on the outcome of vaccination. The study was conducted too early in the pandemic to include research into COVID-19 itself, but the findings are highly relevant to the current pandemic response.
We found consistent and compelling evidence across six studies involving more than a half million participants that meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity – 30 minutes of activity, five days a week – reduces the risk of falling ill and dying of infectious diseases by 37%.
This adds to the results of another new study conducted in the United States specifically on COVID-19. The effect is at least as strong if not more so than the effect reported for other risk factors of COVID-19 such as age or having a pre-existing condition such as diabetes.