The Margin: Exercising about 22 minutes a day could cut your risk of getting severe COVID or dying, study finds

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Here’s yet another reason to get back into a regular exercise habit if you’ve put on the quarantine 15. 

An observational study of almost 50,000 adults found that those who met the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week were less likely to be hospitalized or die due to COVID-19 compared to more sedentary people who almost never broke a sweat. 

The Kaiser Permanente study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on Tuesday drew on the anonymized records of 48,440 adult Californians who used the Kaiser health care system in the two years before the 2020 pandemic. And what’s notable about Kaiser’s data is that it has asked patients to include their exercise habits as a vital sign since 2009, so researchers were able to group men and women by their self-reported physical activity. The least active group said they exercised for 10 minutes or less a week, and the most active group reported hitting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommended 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. 

Researchers analyzed the data to see whether there was any correlation between how much people exercised regularly, and whether they were diagnosed with COVID-19 last year, as well as the severity of their illness. And they found that adults who were consistently inactive, exercising less than 10 minutes a week, had a greater risk of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) and death from COVID-19 than the people who consistently met the physical activity guidelines. Specifically, the least active group was hospitalized at almost twice the rate as the most active group. And the least active group was about two-and-a-half times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the most active group. 

“Consistently meeting physical activity guidelines was strongly associated with a reduced risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes among infected adults.”

Even the patients who didn’t hit that 150-minutes-per-week mark (exercising somewhere between 11 and 149 minutes a week) fared better than those who almost never exercised at all, although their outcomes were still not as great as the more active adults getting 150 minutes or more of physical activity weekly. 

The researchers also looked at the subjects’ underlying health conditions and risk factors, such as their age, their weight and whether they smoked. And they found that, other than advanced age and a history of organ transplant, physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes among the almost 50,000 patients.

Some caveats of this study include the fact that patients self-reported how much they exercised, as well as how vigorous their workouts were. And as an observational study, this does not prove that people who work out less will have worse COVID-19 than those who are more active. But it does find a correlation between regular exercise and better health outcomes, which has also been observed for multiple chronic diseases, including those like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that are associated with severe COVID-19. For example, getting 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a day, like riding a bike, can cut your cancer death risk by 31%, per a study published in JAMA Oncology last summer.

“Consistently meeting physical activity guidelines was strongly associated with a reduced risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes among infected adults,” the researchers concluded in the new Kaiser study, recommending that public health agencies prioritize efforts to promote physical activity as the pandemic continues. 

But the researchers also acknowledged that staying active has become even more difficult during the pandemic than it was beforehand, as people have been urged to stay at home for the past year, and many gyms and wellness centers were forced to close to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, more than two in five surveyed adults (42%) revealed that they gained more weight than they intended over the past 12 months, packing on 29 pounds on average, according to a recent American Psychological Association (APA) survey of more than 3,000 people. And one in 10 said they gained more than 50 pounds. 

Read more: ‘The Covid 15?’ If only — this is how much weight the average person actually gained during the pandemic

Related: Gyms lobby for Washington aid, saying they’re ‘part of our health and fitness infrastructure’

Prior to the pandemic, sedentary jobs that see workers sitting at desks or hunched over computers all day have increased 83% since 1950, according to the American Heart Association. Johns Hopkins reports that physically active jobs now make up less than 20% of the U.S. workforce, which is down from roughly half of jobs in 1960. The average office worker spends up to 15 hours a day sitting down.

So getting two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, such as brisk walking or fast dancing, can sound daunting. But it is doable. 

It may help to break the 150 minutes down into smaller blocks; this comes out to less than 22 minutes a day, or 30 minutes over five days, which can be broken down further into 10-minute bursts a few times a day. What’s more, health officials note that any amount of physical activity is better than none, so it’s fine to start small and work your way up. Begin by taking a brisk, 10-minute walk five times a week, perhaps on your lunch break or after dinner, which will add up to 50 minutes of weekly activity. Once that becomes a regular habit, you can extend the length of those walks until you’re hitting 150 minutes a week. And the extra physical activity can have the added benefit of boosting your mental health if the past year has left you feeling burnt out.

Or you can park your car farther away when you’re running errands, or get off the bus or subway a stop earlier than you normally would to squeeze in some extra steps. We’ve got more tips on squeezing in exercise and finding ways to eat healthier and manage your weight here.