Taking regular physical activity cuts the risk of dying from infectious diseases, such as Covid-19, by 37% and reduces susceptibility to such viruses by 31%, finds a new global study involving UCL researchers.
The research, published in Sports Medicine journal, also found that physical activity can boost the effectiveness of vaccines by up to 40%.
Led by Glasgow Caledonian University, researchers carried out a full-scale systematic review of 16,698 worldwide epidemiological studies published between January 1980 and April 2020.
The study found that 30 minutes of activity five days a week or 150 minutes per week, that gets you slightly out of breath such as walking, running, cycling and strengthening exercises can have a massive impact on immunity to infectious diseases such as Covid-19.
Scientists concluded that it can result in a "31% decrease in the risk of infectious disease such as Covid-19, a 37% decrease in the risk of death as a consequence of infectious disease such as Covid-19 and an increase in the efficacy of vaccination against viral disease such as Covid-19."
Co-author Professor Mark Hamer (UCL Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health), said: "This is one of the first studies to systematically review evidence on associations between physical activity and risk of community acquired infectious disease.
"Previous work in this area largely focused on effects of exercise training on immunity in athletes. Our work focuses on studies in general population and suggest regular physical activity is protective against severe outcomes from infectious disease.
"We also reviewed studies looking at using physical activity as an adjuvant to vaccination. The evidence suggests physical activity can enhance effects of vaccination (boost antibody response) that may have particular relevance to the present Covid-19 vaccination programme."
He added: "These immune benefits may be related to the unique anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective effects of physical activity."
Lead author, Professor Sebastien Chastin (Glasgow Caledonian University), said: "This research is hugely significant and could help to cut the number people contracting COVID-19 and dying from it. It is the first piece of research that proves regular physical activity protects you against infectious disease.
"We found that regular exercise where you get out of breath boosts your immunity to infectious disease by 31 per cent and it increases the number of immune cells in the body in the first line of defence which is the mucosal layer of antibodies. These cells are responsible for identifying foreign agents in the body without depressing the rest of the immune system so it’s perfectly safe and protects you against infectious disease.
"We also found that if you add physical activity to your vaccination programme it increases the potency of the vaccination. We are recommending a 12-weeks physical activity programme before vaccination which could result in 20 to 40 per cent more effective immunisation."
The international study, also involved researchers from Ghent University (UGent) in Belgium, Cádiz University in Spain, and NHS Lanarkshire (NHSL).
Professor Chastin said they found that physical activity, "strengthens the first line of defence of the human immune system and a higher concentration of immune cells" in the world’s first study into the link between exercise and COVID-19 immunity.
The findings have been submitted to Public Health England, the Scottish Government, Public Health Scotland and the South African and Belgian governments, FIFA.
Researchers are urging policymakers to do more to promote physical activity, including public information campaigns to promote the benefit of physical activity in fighting the pandemic.
Professor Chastin said: "Our research shows that if you are active - engaging in 150-minutes per week or 30-minutes five days a week protects you against the risk of infectious disease. You don’t need to go to a gym, as dancing around the living room, going for a run or walk is just as effective. In this period of pandemic being outside is better than in a gym or closed environment.
He added: "The clear message is stay active - it’s not only good for your mental and general health but we now have the proof that it is also good for boosting your immunity. You need to keep it up as it’s about regular exercise and making time to build it into your day."
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