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The Making of Medicine

Exercise Could Help Prevent Deadly COVID-19 Complication

Regular exercise could help protect us from a deadly complication of COVID-19, research suggests.

Our Zhen Yan, PhD, studies the cellular benefits of exercise. He reviewed existing medical research, including his own, and found that the findings “strongly suggest” that exercise can prevent or at least reduce the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which affects 3% to 17% of all patients with COVID-19. Research conducted prior to the pandemic found that roughly 45% of patients who develop a severe case of ARDS die.

Yan’s review focused on a potent antioxidant known as “extracellular superoxide dismutase.” EcSOD hunts down harmful free radicals, protecting our tissues and helping to prevent disease. Our muscles naturally make EcSOD, sending it into circulation to bind to other vital organs, but its production is enhanced by cardiovascular exercise.

The good news: Even a single session of exercise ups production of EcSOD. But Yan says the real benefit comes from exercising regularly. He urges people to find ways to exercise while still practicing safe social distancing. He practices what he preaches, too, regularly biking 16 miles per day.

“We cannot live in isolation forever,” he said. “Regular exercise has far more health benefits than we know. The protection against this severe respiratory disease condition is just one of the many examples.”

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