Improving immunity through physical activity and exercise – new advice for healthcare professionals

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Restrictions are reducing opportunities for people to be physically active

Attempts by governments throughout the world to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) by imposing lockdowns to restrict social contact have come with a high price, confining individuals and families  to their homes for prolonged periods, with restricted time outdoors.

Emerging data from across the world indicates that these lockdowns have resulted in reduced physical activity and increased sedentary time in society. Even as lockdown restrictions ease, it is possible that these habits are maintained, which in conjunction with the stress of the situation could be detrimental to immune function and the risk of developing further chronic health conditions. Recently, there has been a resurgence of the infection within communities in the UK and other parts of the world, resulting in the reinstatement of some social restrictions as well as regional lockdowns. These forced lifestyle and habit changes are likely to continue until a suitable vaccine is developed and widely distributed. Of wider consequence to our health and well being, such restrictions are reducing opportunities for people to be physically active, which is at a time when the clinical manifestations of COVID-19 vary considerably amongst people, with older individuals and those with certain medical conditions becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation.

In response to this issue, Dr Alex Wadley and Dr Sam Lucas at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences have been working with Dr Brian Johnson, a GP who leads the Motivate2Move educational programme, and healthcare professional bodies to develop a factsheet to enhance understanding of how engaging in regular physical activity and/or exercise can support immune function and potentially minimise the severity of symptoms of COVID-19, if infected. The aim is to guide GPs, nurses and other clinical practitioners to reinforce the benefits of physical activity and structured exercise, particularly in the wake of lockdown measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on existing research that has established the benefits of exercise on immune function, the factsheet provides evidence for how both single and regular sessions of exercise can prime the immune system to work more effectively. Further, the guidance explains how physical activity and/or exercise can support the immune system to fight off common infections and lower the risk of various health conditions. The team also offer practical advice for different individuals as to how they might undertake physical activity and/or exercise to minimise the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, if infected.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) have endorsed the advice and are promoting it amongst their members. A link to the published factsheet is here.

Alongside this factsheet, the team is working with patient groups to develop a leaflet that will be available to the public within the community setting (e.g. GP Practice).

Dr Alex Wadley - Lecturer in Exercise Metabolism & Dr Sam Lucas - Senior Lecturer in Exercise and Environmental Physiology.