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Exercise makes vaccines more effective



In 2008, a study found that physical inactivity is responsible for more than five million premature deaths every year. A new study has found that you are 50 percent more likely to have higher antibodies after being vaccinated if you are active, than somebody who is inactive. The study by Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland, also found that 30 minutes of activity five days a week decreases the risk of falling ill and dying of infectious diseases by 37 percent.

These findings present important implications to future pandemic responses, as the study author, Professor Sebastien Chastin, explains. The availability of vaccines has brought hope for the end of the pandemic. Yet, COVID-19 deaths and cases are still surging around the world particularly in India. As we try to immunize the world, the most likely scenario for the next few years is that COVID-19 will be like other infectious diseases, such as flu, that we will need to continuously manage and protect ourselves against.

One of the best ways to tackle COVID-19 is by being physically active. We already know that physical activity is one of the most effective ways to prevent chronic diseases, along with diet and quitting smoking. Since 2008, a study had shown that physical inactivity is responsible for more than five million premature deaths every year.


Now, a new systematic review of evidence by the World Economic Forum shows that regular physical activity strengthens the human immune system, reduces risk of falling ill and dying from infectious disease by more than a third and significantly increases the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns. This has important implications for pandemic responses.

In a study by the World Economic Forum, they reviewed all available evidence relating to the effect of physical activity on the risk of falling ill and dying from infectious diseases such as pneumonia- a frequent cause of death from COVID- itself, but the findings are highly relevant to the current pandemic response. They found consistent and compelling evidence across six studies involving more than a half million participants that meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity- 30 minutes of activity, five days a week- reduces the risk of falling ill and dying of infectious diseases by 37 percent.

This adds to the results of another new study conducted in the United States specifically on COVID-19. The effect is at least as strong as, if not more so than the effect reported for other risk factors of COVID-19 such as age or having a preexisting condition such as diabetes. They also found that regular physical activity strengthens the human immune system. Across 35 independent trials – the gold standard for scientific evidence – regular physical activity resulted in elevated levels of the antibody immunoglobulin IgA. This antibody coats the mucosal membrane of our lungs and other parts of our body where viruses and bacteria can enter.

Regular physical activity also increases the number of CD4+T cells which are responsible for alerting the immune system of an attack and regulate its response. Finally, in the randomized controlled trials studied, vaccines appear more effective if they are administered after a programme of physical activity. A person who is active is 50 percent more likely to have a higher antibody count after vaccination than somebody who isn’t active. This is a cost-effective and easy way of boosting vaccination campaigns. Considering difficulties in the supply chains, this could be a wise move during each vaccination exercise.

How does physical activity ward off disease? There are three mechanisms that make physical activity an effective medicine against infectious diseases. First, it protects against risk factors of severe and fatal infection. Physically active people are less likely to develop obesity, diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Epidemiological studies have shown that COVID-19 and other respiratory infections are more severe for people who have these conditions.


Physical activity also reduces stress and chronic inflammation, in turn reducing other diverse and fatal infections. Most COVID-19 and pneumonia fatalities have been as a result of uncontrolled inflammatory response. Finally, our immune system is stronger if we’re physically active; which is why we need to get moving. We must be on the go at all times.

Physical activity is an important way to make populations less vulnerable to infectious diseases, future epidemics and pandemics. It should be used more urgently and effectively in fighting the current pandemic but also as a long term investment to prevent the devastating social and economic impact this pandemic has had on society. Governments should encourage people to stay active in order to cope with the pandemic.

Instead, there has been an apparent decrease in physical activity in the past year. This is a dangerous trend that could make the population more vulnerable to infectious and chronic diseases in the short term. Left unchecked, it will also leave a damaging long-term legacy and increase the burden of disease and its associated social and economic costs.

Underestimating the impact of physical inactivity could also exacerbate the unsustainable and unacceptable health inequalities highlighted by the pandemic. It is now more important than ever for governments to galvanize all sectors of society to promote physical activity. Every move counts in fighting this pandemic and managing infectious diseases in the future.


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