Run, stretch or dance: Exercise could improve COVID vaccine effectiveness, new study shows

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Vaccination and physical activity have both been considered helpful when it comes to lowering the risk of severe COVID-19 infections, and now, a new study has found that regular exercise could improve vaccine effectiveness.

Compared to those who are vaccinated with low exercise levels, vaccinated individuals with moderate and high levels of physical activity had (1.4 and 2.8 times respectively) lower risk of being admitted to the hospital with COVID, found the study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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“This research adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the growing advantages of regular physical activity,” Jon Patricios, the study’s principal investigator and professor of sports and exercise medicine at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told Global News.

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The study involved nearly 200,000 participants from South Africa aged 18 and above categorized into low, moderate and high activity groups to test the hypothesis that exercise is an “effect modifier” on the relationship between vaccination and hospitalization.

“What this research tells us is that getting a COVID-19 vaccine – or a second, third or fourth COVID vaccine – as well as being active are good for your health and will hopefully contribute towards better outcomes if you do contract COVID-19,” Jennifer Jackson, a registered nurse and assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing, told Global News.

And, according to Jackson, every little bit of physical activity counts.

“Physical activity can be whatever is within reach for you,” she said. “For some people, it might be doing some stretches in the wheelchair. For other people, it might be a bike ride every morning.”

“But I think the important thing is to move your body in a way that feels right for you.”

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It’s also important to remember that physical activity isn’t always accessible for everyone and not just a matter of “will power,” according to Jackson.

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“Physical activity is impacted by our environment,” she said. “If people are working three jobs because they are struggling with inflation right now, I appreciate that. It might not be easy and I would never say that they have to take on something like a 10 kilometer running plan.”

But, incorporating physical activity into your daily routine, whether it’s playing with your children or dancing around your bedroom to your favourite song is a good way to improve your quality of life, Jackson said.

“Maybe you’re watching the hockey game and every time the commercials come on, you stand up and do a stretch or a yoga pose or a couple of squats,” she said.

“I would encourage people to be gentle with themselves and just do whatever they can do.”

Physical activity in the study was tracked by minutes, step count and heart rate data through wearable devices.

Those with low activity levels engaged in less than an hour of at least moderate-intensity physical activity per week. 

Participants with moderate physical activity levels engaged in one hour to nearly 2.5 hours of exercise per week and those in the high activity group exercised for 2.5 hours or more each week.

For those in the low activity group, vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19-related hospital admission sat at 60 per cent. The moderate activity groups’ vaccine effectiveness, in comparison, was 72.1 per cent and 85.8 per cent for the high activity group.

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This implies that despite receiving the same jab, those who exercised the most were nearly 26 per cent less likely to be hospitalized because of the virus compared to those who spent less time engaging in physical activities.

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According to the World Health Organization, adults aged 18 to 64 should partake in at least 2.5 to five hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week to see health benefits in the heart, body and mind.

“This study validated the WHO criteria,” said Patricios.

According to the government of Canada, physical activity can reduce the risk of over 25 chronic conditions in adults aged 18-64 including stroke, colon cancer, osteoporosis, hypertension, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.

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The government also recommends at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week to achieve health benefits.

Aside from physical activity, other non-pharmacological interventions have also been used throughout the pandemic to help control the spread of the virus, including physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing.

And, according to the study, the most effective non-pharmacological intervention has appeared to be lockdowns.

The study concludes that physical activity “enhances” vaccine effectiveness against severe outcomes of the virus and also said it should be encouraged by greater public health messaging.

“Physical activity is the most cost-effective intervention in preventing non-communicable and communicable diseases,” said Patricios.

And, when it comes to including physical activity into COVID-19 messaging, Jackson agrees.

“I think that would be really useful,” she said.

“But right now, from a public health perspective, my primary goal would be to encourage people to become vaccinated.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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