The best protection from Covid-19? Stay healthy.

An Appalachian State University professor is urging Americans to get in better shape to protect themselves against Covid-19.

June 22, 2020 

Better shape, better immune system

David Nieman, a biology professor and Director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, believes the epidemic should be a wake-up call to the world to reverse trends of obesity and lack of exercise to keep immune systems in better shape.

“We can do a lot with exercise and leanness to help fend off the virus,” Nieman advises, “Or if we get it, to reduce the symptoms and the duration of the symptoms.”

Without those improvements, Nieman believes pandemics could become more common and spread faster because the world’s population is becoming older, more unfit and obese. Nieman’s warning comes in a just published research paper titled Coronovirus Disease-2019: A Tocsin to our Aging, Unfit, Corpulent and Immunodeficiency Society. It is published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. 

“Intense exercise when infected with COVID-19 or other systemic viruses should be avoided," Nieman tells USA Today. “But now more than ever, physical activity is important to strengthen immune function and combat psychological stressors associated with the pandemic. Exercise is our best medicine to combat those.”

Back to the basics: exercise

The standard exercise recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control are pretty simple: Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week (brisk walking is an example) and do muscle-strengthening activities two days per week. That’s the minimum. You can mix the moderate physical activity with more vigorous exercises like running.

For his study, Nieman reviewed existing research on immunity as well as his own work in the field along with information learned during the Covid-19 outbreak. He wanted to see how regular, moderate-intensity physical activity reduced morbidity and mortality from respiratory disease.

There are two strategies to lower the risk for Covid-19, according to Nieman: mitigation activities (social distancing, mask wearing, staying home, healthy hygiene) and lifestyle practices consistent with good immune health such as exercising.

“While mitigation measures protect older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, lifestyle practices boost immune defense,” said Nieman.

And that boosted immune system protects everyone. Nieman’s research shows 30-to-60 minutes of almost daily activity (such as brisk walking) pushes the immune system to detect and destroy viruses. That can reduce the risk of respiratory infections by 25 to 50 percent.

In addition, obesity impairs the body’s ability to fight and recover from viral infections. Which means those at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19 include people of all ages with obesity and underlying medical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. In many patients, obesity is accompanied by other medical conditions.

Nieman also found that aging leads to a reduction in immune function. As a result, infectious disease is more likely, and vaccines are often less effective among the elderly. Bottom line: the data shows staying healthy reduces infection risk.

“Mitigation practices will always be vitally important to saving lives, but primary prevention measures focused on healthy behaviors also demand our full attention and support,” said Nieman.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.