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Physical activity lowers the risk of COVID-19 infection

Amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a study led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) sheds new light on the potential protective effects of maintaining an active lifestyle. 

The comprehensive study reveals that individuals adhering to exercise guidelines recommended by the U.S. and World Health Organization prior to the pandemic’s onset exhibited significantly reduced risks of contracting COVID-19 and necessitating hospitalization due to the virus. 

Notably, these adults experienced 10 percent lower odds of infection and 27 percent lower odds of hospitalization compared to their less active peers, as detailed in an article published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Unique opportunity 

“The COVID-19 pandemic provided a very unique opportunity to look at a potential benefit of physical activity from data that was collected before it began,” said lead author Dennis Muñoz Vergara, an instructor at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the Division of Preventive Medicine at BWH. 

The research utilized data from 61,557 adults, averaging an age of 76, who participated in three ongoing clinical trial cohorts – COSMOS, VITAL, and WHS. These participants had previously documented their exercise habits, which ranged from biking and walking to more vigorous activities like running and climbing stairs. 

Key findings

From May 2020 through May 2022, the study revealed that those who were sufficiently active according to established guidelines saw a significant reduction in both COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalization rates due to the virus. Intriguingly, the protective effects of physical activity appeared to be more pronounced in females.

Despite its insights, the study acknowledges limitations, such as its observational nature and reliance on self-reported data, which may not fully capture health behavior changes during the pandemic. The researchers emphasize the need for further investigation to extend these findings across diverse demographic groups.

Broader implications 

Looking ahead, the team aims to explore the link between pre-pandemic physical activity and other health dimensions, including mental well-being and social connectedness.

“This large, unique study in older adults as they navigated the onset of the pandemic provides important support for physical activity in preventing COVID-19 infection and hospitalization that may extend more broadly to enhanced immune function and lessening vulnerability to infections,” explained senior author Howard D. Sesso, an associate epidemiologist at the Division of Preventive Medicine and Osher Center at BWH.

Through the lens of this research, the vital role of regular physical activity in fortifying individuals against COVID-19 and potentially other infectious diseases is brought into sharp focus, advocating for exercise as a cornerstone of public health strategy amidst and beyond the pandemic.

More about COVID-19

COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. This highly contagious virus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. It can also spread by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching the face.


The infection ranges from mild to severe respiratory illness. Symptoms often include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and they may appear 2-14 days after exposure. 

Some individuals, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, are at a higher risk of developing severe complications, such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, organ failure, and death.


COVID-19 can also be asymptomatic in some people, meaning they do not show symptoms but can still spread the virus. This has made controlling the spread more challenging. Measures to reduce transmission have included lockdowns, social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand hygiene.


Vaccines have been developed and distributed worldwide, significantly reducing the severity of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. However, the virus has mutated over time, leading to new variants that sometimes show resistance to existing vaccines or increased transmissibility.

The pandemic has had profound impacts on global health, economies, and daily life, leading to an increased focus on public health infrastructure, vaccine development, and international cooperation to manage current and future pandemics.

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