The 'small steps, strong shield' study found that adults with high or moderate physical activity levels had better health outcomes after contracting the virus than those with little to no physical activity.
The research was an international collaboration led by the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, with researchers at Western University. It looked at the health outcomes of over 65,000 patients from March 2020 to June 2021.
"What we found is that even if you're active for only 60 minutes per week, that's still enough to infer a protective benefit against severe outcomes of COVID-19," said Dr. Jane Thornton, one of the study's researchers at Western.
"It was interesting to look at objectively measured physical activity, where we measure it, instead of asking questions about people's physical activity levels," she added.
Varying activity levels per week
The study looked at participants in three levels of physical activity in terms of how many minutes per week they exercised.
Thornton says the "moderate category" involves those who are active between 1-2.5 hours per week, which is based on global physical activity guidelines from the World Health Organization.
"Physical activity is protective, which we knew in some respects, but it's the amount of physical activity that's good to see that there doesn't need to be too much activity needed," she said.
The researchers saw hospitalizations declining by about two-thirds, with ICU admissions and ventilation down by nearly half, compared to those with no physical activity.
"It became clear to us that this was something we should really be advocating for more in healthcare, but also policy and the broader community," she said.
Little steps go a long way
Thornton says that as important as physical activity is, it doesn't need to be intense or rigorous for it to have an effect, and it's that misconception that can reduce people's motivation.
"It's small steps. It doesn't need to be a big leap from couch to doing hours of physical activity per day, but it's about putting a little bit of activity every day. An hour spread over a week is not that much," she said.
She says that being physical activity mixed with following public health guidelines, such as masking and vaccinations, can do a lot to prevent chronic effects after recovering from the virus.
Thornton says incorporating some activity into one's day can also allow for people to have some sense of control, especially with the pandemic's ongoing challenges.
"It's something you can feel empowered to do, even when everything around us is sometimes difficult to control, to be able to have that one thing you do on a daily basis helps," she said.
"The study's really trying to say that we know physical activity had been challenging because of COVID, but let's try to be healthy."