Exercise may protect against deadly COVID-19 complications


Regular exercise may reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a major cause of death in patients with the COVID-19 virus, a top exercise researcher reports.

A review by Zhen Yan from the University of Virginia School of Medicine showed that medical research findings “strongly support” the possibility that exercise can prevent, or at least reduce the severity of ARDS, which affects between 3% and 17% of all patients with COVID-19.

COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, can cause serious complications in some patients.

Statistics collected from clinical cases show that the severity of the condition tends to increase with age and in those patients with underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, or other respiratory problems. 

Scientists believe that the body’s reaction to COVID-19 depends largely on the strength of a person’s immune system. This theory could potentially explain mild or asymptomatic patients. 

"80% of patients confirmed with COVID-19 have mild symptoms without the need for respiratory support”, explained Dr Yan, but the question he asked himself and colleagues was - “why?”. 

Powerful antioxidant 

Dr Zhen Yan and a team of researchers compiled an in-depth review of existing scientific literature, including his own, looking at an antioxidant known as "extracellular superoxide dismutase" (EcSOD). This important antioxidant seeks out harmful free radicals, helping to protect the body’s tissues and helps to prevent disease.

Muscles naturally produce EcSOD. 

When EcSOD is produced it is diffused into the body’s circulation, which allows it to bind to vital organs. It is also understood that the production of this antioxidant is enhanced by cardiovascular exercise. 

Yan’s review demonstrated that patients with diseases such as acute lung disease, ischemic heart disease and kidney failure produce less EcSOD.

Laboratory research using mice suggests that blocking the production of EcSOD makes heart problems worse, while increasing it has a beneficial effect. 

A decrease in EcSOD is also associated with chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Research suggests that just one session of exercise increases the production of the EcSOD antioxidant, prompting Yan to urge people to find ways to exercise even while maintaining social distancing regulations

“We cannot live in isolation forever,” said Dr Yan.

“Regular exercise has far more health benefits than we know. The protection against the severe respiratory disease condition ARDS, is just one of the many examples.”

EcSOD as potential treatment?

Yan’s review also suggests EcSOD as a potential treatment for ARDS and many other health conditions. Gene therapy, as one example, could one day be used to increase production of the EcSOD antioxidant so that its protective presence in the lungs is enhanced for patients battling COVID-19.

Other research in laboratory rats with chronic kidney disease showed those who were treated with human EcSOD had reduced kidney damage.

The antioxidant is already being proposed as a therapeutic potential for diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that can lead to blindness. 

EcSOD may also be beneficial against multi-organ dysfunction syndrome, a severe condition that causes multi organs to begin to fail. 

“We often say that exercise is medicine. EcSOD provides a perfect example of what we can learn from the biological process of exercise to advance medicine,” explained Dr Yan.

“While we strive to learn more about the mysteries about the superb benefits of regular exercise, we do not have to wait until we know everything before putting it into practice,” he concluded.

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