Exercise and COVID-19

A webinar with Karlie Intlekofer, PhD

Dr. Karlie Intlekofer is a neuroscientist who focuses on the benefits of exercise for brain health and well-being. She has a background in research and teaching at the university level and focuses on exercise motivation and brain areas involved in stress, learning, and memory. Her passion in this field is bolstered by experience working with a wide range of ages and abilities as a personal trainer and group exercise instructor.

This is the first part of the three-series webinar with Dr. Karlie Intlekofer. In this part, she talks about the correlation between COVID and exercise and answers three of the most commonly asked questions.

The webinar was brought to you by Hidden Gym at Pegasus Park.

The Coronavirus changed the way we think about our health and made us more cautious about the things we do in our everyday life. At this point, in February 2022, COVID cases and rates of hospitalization are finally beginning to drop within the US. Most of us have already contracted the virus or gotten vaccinated.

While there was very little information about the virus at the beginning of the pandemic, now we know a lot more about the risk factors, treatment, and prevention. Some of the risk factors for severe COVID and complications include:

  • Age – the older you are the worst clinical outcomes;
  • Chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, type two diabetes, etc;
  • High BMI (body mass index) due to excess body fat. In fact, it seems to be related to having a larger waistline more than anything else.

There are a couple of reasons for this correlation between waistline size and getting terribly sick from Covid-19.

The first reason is that the Coronavirus spike protein might have a higher impact on those who have more visceral body fat (or fat around the waist). The fat cells around the waist have a lot of receptors for the COVID SPIKE protein.

Secondly, we know that as waist size increases, typically people are more inflamed, have higher blood sugar, and have more systemic inflammation. This causes their immune function to be impaired.

These golden arrows here are showcasing that exercise can provide tons of benefits for a lot of these different points. It can address a high BMI due to excess body fat, and it can help you reduce that waist size. Furthermore, exercise might decrease inflammation and help you cope with the blood sugar rollercoaster that a lot of us are on.

How does exercise affect the risk of Covid-19?

There have been several papers that have come out in the last two years on this topic. For example, there’s a very nice larger-scale study in the US on over 40,000 adults with COVID. It found that sedentary individuals have more long-term Covid-19 complications compared to active individuals.

Similar to this, there was a study out of Brazil that showed how individuals with higher levels of fitness, were less likely to suffer complications or be hospitalized than those who are in the lowest rates of physical activity. Your maximal exercise capacity is inversely related to the risk of hospitalization and the secondary risks of COVID that we know are particularly serious. All of these studies point in the direction that exercises benefit you and reduce your risk of COVID.

Can you exercise if you test positive?

Keep in mind that this decision should be made with the help of your medical care provider.

If you look at the research, just from an educational standpoint, it says that you can exercise when you are fever-free and you’re feeling okay. Take steps to not spread the virus if you’re still contagious, but exercise is a good choice.

In fact, with many respiratory viruses, we see better outcomes including less symptomatic days when folks engage in mild to moderate exercise (no more than 45 minutes). Shorter, lighter workouts can help get that blood flow and increase the recovery process.

Should you exercise if you are a long-hauler?

“Long haulers” refer to folks whose symptoms are persistent. These are symptoms that lasted at least four weeks. You can have long-haul symptoms, even if you weren’t hospitalized, or if you were mildly symptomatic, or asymptomatic. We see that about 30% of those who are hospitalized with COVID have some level of myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle. This will probably resolve but it seems to take some time.

There’s also evidence for brain damage and brain inflammation. Around 34% of covid patients report that they have some symptoms of brain fog, such as confusion, difficulty focusing, learning, and remembering things.

So, should you exercise if you are a long hauler?

Remember that your progress should reflect your symptoms. When you execute a workout, ask yourself questions like “How am I recovering?”.  If it’s taking you a really long time to recover and it’s extremely exhausting, then this may be something to consider as you plan the rest of your week.

Warm-ups really do matter here. If your heart and lungs are still inflamed, your cardiovascular system is going to take longer to ramp up to the intensity. Do a gradual slow warm-up and if you feel any symptoms, such as shortness of breath or pain, make sure to follow a physician’s guidance.

Furthermore, you should focus on short workouts. If you’re used to doing long and difficult workouts, it might be hard to set your ego aside when you return to a workout that is much shorter and easier. However, short workouts do work. It is simply not possible to regain fitness and strength without exercise, so don’t underestimate the importance of mild physical activity. It would still make a huge difference.

This webinar was sponsored by Matrix Fitness. Stay tuned for the next part!