NEWS

Exercise May Help Alleviate Lasting Covid-19 Symptoms, Study Finds

Man exercising

Key Takeaways

  • Research participants showed improvements in fatigue, cognition, and respiratory symptoms
  • Exercise is often suggested to help manage fatigue that accompanies a range of conditions
  • If you have prolonged symptoms from Covid, starting with short daily walks can be a helpful way to ease into exercise.

People with COVID-19 symptoms that extended after their initial bout with the virus may get relief from exercise, according to a recent study in the journal Chronic Respiratory Disease. Researchers recruited 30 people who had the virus and, four months later, were still experiencing issues like breathlessness, fatigue, “brain fog,” and reduced ability to engage in everyday activities. All but four of them had been in a hospital because of COVID-19, and five of those had been on a ventilator.

They underwent a six-week program, with exercise sessions twice a week that included walking on a treadmill, strength training, and educational discussions about symptom management.

Researchers found significant improvement in exercise capacity—participants were able to exercise for longer durations without stopping to rest as the weeks went on—as well as improvements in breathing, cognition, and energy levels.

Exercise and Fatigue

While the recent study was only involved a small pool of participants, the effects of exercise on issues like respiratory health, cardiovascular function, immune health, pain regulation, and cognition have been well established in previous research, according to Medhat Mikhael, MD, a pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

Addressing fatigue, in particular, is notable because that problem is present in a range of conditions and can often be debilitating. Mikhael adds that fatigue can cause a ripple effect that puts health at greater risk.

Medhat Mikhael, MD

It’s surprising how little exercise it actually takes to counteract fatigue, no matter what the cause of that fatigue might be.

— Medhat Mikhael, MD

For example, despite the listlessness that comes with fatigue, some of its sufferers have trouble sleeping, and that can affect quality of life, according to a study in the journal Sleep Disorders.

Sleep problems can then create difficulties with heart health, immune function, gut health, and brain function. It can be challenging to convince people with fatigue to exercise since they sometimes think it would cause them to be more exhausted, Mikhael says, but the opposite is often true, particularly if exercise is progressed gradually. 

“It’s surprising how little exercise it actually takes to counteract fatigue, no matter what the cause of that fatigue might be,” he notes. “Just going for a short walk, especially if it’s outside in the fresh air, can have a considerable effect. Rather than lying down or ‘taking it easy,’ commit to moving for a few minutes instead.”

Starting Points

For those, like the recent participants, who are still experiencing COVID-19 symptoms weeks or even months after the initial infection, it’s helpful to get rehabilitation advice and programs from specialists like pulmonary therapists and cardiac rehab professionals, according to the study’s lead author, Enya Daynes, PhD, research physiotherapist at University Hospitals of Leicester in the U.K.

“We know that COVID-19 survivors present with a wide variety of symptoms and that a one-size-fits-all approach to managing these would not be appropriate,” she says. “However, there is some overlap between their needs and the needs of patients who require pulmonary rehab, for example.”

For those who are unable to access the right rehabilitation resources, short walks may be a good started point. As a way to build up exercise capacity over time, it’s helpful to set daily goals, suggests trainer Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, such as walking for five minutes longer each day.

Enya Daynes, PhD

There were significant improvements in clinical outcomes of walking capacity and symptoms of fatigue, cognition, and respiratory symptoms. These are factors that patients tell us most affect their quality of life.

— Enya Daynes, PhD

“It also helps to recruit others,” adds Thomas, especially if you feel like your motivation might be lacking, or if fatigue is a major concern.

“As you expand your walks by duration and distance, you may feel gradual benefits,” says Daynes. “We found there were significant improvements in clinical outcomes of walking capacity and symptoms of fatigue, cognition, and respiratory symptoms. These are factors that patients tell us most affect their quality of life.”

As with any medical condition, be sure to talk with your medical professional about workout options and precautions you should take to exercise safely.

What This Means For You

Post-Covid issues like breathlessness and fatigue may be improved by a gradual progression of exercise, particularly one designed by a health professional.

 

 

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2 Sources
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  1. Daynes E, Gerlis C, Chaplin E, Gardiner N, Singh SJ. Early experiences of rehabilitation for individuals post-COVID to improve fatigue, breathlessness exercise capacity and cognition – a cohort study. Chron Respir Dis. 2021;18:14799731211015691. doi:10.1177/14799731211015691

  2. Schlarb AA, Reis D, Schröder A. Sleep characteristics, sleep problems, and associations to quality of life among psychotherapists. Sleep Disord. 2012;2012:1-7. doi:10.1155/2012/806913