The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Does regular exercise really reduce the severity of COVID-19?

Posted in

Friday, May 07, 2021

By now, everyone is aware of the many benefits associated with engaging in regular exercise during most days of the week. However, if you’re anything like me, the COVID-19 related gym closures and restricted access to common spaces used for exercise have caused a major shift in your exercise regimen.

Nevertheless, avid exercisers figured out how to make the necessary adjustments, and believed that regular exercise is of utmost importance, especially during the pandemic. Additionally, many noticed that the vast majority of athletes diagnosed with COVID-19 reported mild or no symptoms and were able to recover quickly. As such, we all made the assumption that regular exercise likely decreases the severity of COVID-19.  However, until recently, there was no scientific evidence to support this idea.

In April 2021, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined hospitalization rates, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and mortality (death) among 48,440 individuals who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between January 1, 2020, and October 21, 2020.  Participants were placed into one of three categories: physically inactive, inconsistently active, and consistently meeting the physical activity guidelines (participating in ≥150 min/week of moderate to vigorous exercise) based on their self-reported physical activity participation.

The findings of the study revealed that being consistently inactive increased the likelihood of COVID-19 related hospitalizations by 2.26-fold compared with those consistently meeting the physical activity guidelines. Physically inactive individuals were also 80% more likely to be admitted to the ICU than their consistently active counterparts. What’s more, even being inconsistently active provided some benefit wherein these individuals were significantly less likely to be hospitalized or admitted to the ICU compared to the consistently inactive participants.

Lastly, the likelihood of COVID-19 deaths among physically inactive individuals was approximately 2.5 times greater compared to the consistently active group. Based on these findings, the authors concluded that meeting the physical activity guidelines was strongly associated with reduced risk for severe COVID-19 among infected adults. In fact, these data suggest that physical inactivity may be a stronger risk factor for severe COVID-19 complications than any of the underlying medical conditions and risk factors (e.g. obesity, smoking, etc.) noted by the CDC with the exception of age and a history of organ transplant.

Now that all of our assumptions (or at least the one’s related to COVID-19 severity and exercise participation) have been confirmed, what’s the next step?

To the fellow avid exercisers, keep it up! For those struggling to find the motivation and/or desire to start or get back to exercising, find something enjoyable and take small steps towards meeting those physical activity guidelines. Avoid the ‘all or none’ thinking and know that some physical activity goes a long way during the pandemic. Ultimately, the key is to avoid a sedentary lifestyle at all costs as the damaging effects of physical inactivity have shown to be amplified during this pandemic, but more on that later!   


Sallis R, Young DR, Tartof SY, Sallis JR, Sall J, Li Q, Smith GN, & Cohen DA (2021). Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48,440 adult patients. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 1-8. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-104080.