Engaging in physical activity consistently is associated with a lower risk of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death, according to a new study published Monday in The British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Researchers analyzed the findings of 16 studies published between November 2019 and March 2022, which included 1,853,610 adults from around the world with an average age of 53.
The data showed that those who routinely made time for physical activity had an 11% lower risk of being infected with COVID-19, a 36% lower risk of being hospitalized because of the virus, a 44% lower risk for developing severe illness, and a 43% lower risk of death from the virus as compared to those not physically active.
“Everybody can benefit from being more active, regardless of age, sex or physical ability,” Dr. Yasmin Ezzatvar, one of the researchers on the study, tells Fortune.
What is the magic amount of exercise? The combined data used the Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET) which calculates the amount of calories burned per minute of activity. The most effective amount, according to the researchers, is 500 METs which equates to 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
This is in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation that adults should get 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise along with two days of strength training.
One in four Americans are “inactive,” meaning they don’t get physical activity outside of their day-to-day jobs according to the CDC.
The researchers highlight the effects of physical activity on the body’s immune system.
“There is evidence that regular physical activity might contribute to a more effective immune response, providing enhanced protective immunity to infections, which could explain the relationship between exercise consistency with COVID-19 infection,” Ezzatvar says.
Regular physical activity is also associated with positive cognitive function, mental health, and sleep outcomes, and a decreased risk for developing chronic conditions, according to the CDC.
Study participants engaged in swimming, cycling, volleyball, running, and lifting, as well as other activities like walking or pedaling in place. Ezzatvar encourages adding muscle-strengthening activities to your routine at least two days a week, including weight training, yoga or pilates, or resistance-band training. She says there are many ways to incorporate activity into your day without having to drop everything and head to the gym.
“It can be done as part of work, sport and leisure or transport,” she says. “But also through dance, play and everyday household tasks, like gardening and cleaning.”
Engage as many muscle groups as possible for maximum benefits, Ezzatvar says, noting the “physiological adaptations” that happen from regular physical activity.
“It’s time to consider exercise as medicine,” Ezzatvar says. “It’s never too late to start being physically active.”
The combined studies were observational so more research is needed to study the potential benefits of routine physical activity on COVID-19 response.