How you move and how you eat could have an impact on how your body responds when faced with the coronavirus. Like so many other health complications, diet and exercise seem to affect the body's ability to fight COVID-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — and its complications.
Exercise and COVID-19 complications
Regular exercise may help reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a dangerous and potentially fatal condition caused by COVID-19, according to new research.
ARDS results when fluid builds up in in the tiny air sacs in the lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic. When this happens, lungs aren't able to fill completely because of the fluid. That means less oxygen reaches the bloodstream, so organs don't have enough oxygen to function.
Zhen Yan of the University of Virginia School of Medicine says medical research findings "strongly support" the possibility that exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of ARDS. Between 3% to 17% of all people with COVID-19 develop ARDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An estimated 20% to 42% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients will develop ARDS. The range for patients admitted to intensive care is 67% to 85%.
According to earlier research, ARDS has a mortality rate as high as 45% for severe cases.
"All you hear now is either social distancing or ventilator, as if all we can do is either avoid exposure or rely on a ventilator to survive if we get infected," Yan said in a statement. "The flip side of the story is that approximately 80% of confirmed COVID-19 patients have mild symptoms with no need of respiratory support. The question is, 'Why?' Our findings about an endogenous antioxidant enzyme provide important clues and have intrigued us to develop a novel therapeutic for ARDS caused by COVID-19."
Yan, the director of the Center for Skeletal Muscle Research at UVA's Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center, reviewed medical research of an antioxidant known as extracellular superoxide dismutase (EcSOD). The antioxidant protects tissues from damage and increases healing. It's naturally made by muscles, but production is increased during cardiovascular exercise. The results of the findings were published in Redox Biology.
According to Yan's analysis, even just one workout session can increase production of the antioxidant. So, he's encouraging people to find a way to exercise while making sure to maintain social distancing.
"We cannot live in isolation forever," he said. "Regular exercise has far more health benefits than we know. The protection against this severe respiratory disease condition is just one of the many examples."
How diet impacts coronavirus risk
In addition to exercise, diet plays a key role in how our bodies respond to the coronavirus. We know that underlying conditions are what make so many people susceptible to COVID-19. Those with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure are at the highest risk. Many of these conditions are impacted by diet.
But it's not just making a few smart food choices once in a while. It's a complete lifestyle change that can be affected by everything from where and how you live to culture, resources and habits.
"Healthy living is very difficult for Americans facing relentless advertising for processed and unhealthy foods, addictive (salt and sugar) ultra-processed food, entrenched and culturally-reinforced taste preferences, limited access to healthy foods for many Americans, public policy that subsidizes disease-promoting foods, sedentary behavior, and a health care and medical education system that still largely emphasizes sick care over prevention," writes Casey Means, M.D., a practicing physician with a clinical focus on nutrition, nutrigenomics and disease prevention, and Grady Means, a writer and former corporate strategy consultant, in The Hill.
Poor diet is "now the leading cause of poor health in the U.S.," Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Freidman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, told Jane E. Brody of The New York Times. Fewer than one American adult in five is metabolically healthy, he said.
"Only 12 percent of Americans are without high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or pre-diabetes," he said. "The statistics are horrifying, but unlike COVID they happened gradually enough that people just shrugged their shoulders. However, beyond age, these are the biggest risk factors for illness and death from COVID-19."
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood glucose, poor cholesterol, high triglycerides and excess abdominal fat, according to the American Heart Association. Metabolic health and the immune system influence each other. When the former is lacking, infections can increase.
Many people are turning to unhealthy comfort foods during this crisis. Others are limited in what they can find because of empty store shelves. But the biggest problem is those who live in food deserts and poor communities that never had access to healthy foods in the first place.
"The COVID pandemic has cast a glaring light on longstanding costly and life-threatening inequities in American society. Those living in economically challenged communities, and especially people of color, are bearing the heaviest burden of COVID-19 infections. But while diet-related disorders increase vulnerability to the virus, limited national attention has been paid to lack of access to nutritionally wholesome foods that can sustain metabolic health and support a vigorous immune system," Brody writes.
"Clearly, when this pandemic subsides, a lot more attention to the American diet will be needed to ward off future medical, economic and social calamities from whatever pathogen next comes down the pike."