12 to 18 months. That’s the timeline that continues to resonate in billions of people’s minds as we all ponder the prospect of the next year and a half without a COVID-19 vaccine. Health officials and elected leaders all over the world say that the threat posed by the coronavirus won’t be truly neutralized until a vaccine is widely available. Time tends to fly by as one grows older, but suddenly the next year or so feels like it may last an eternity.
What can we do to protect ourselves from COVID-19?
In the meantime, what can we do to protect ourselves? Besides the recommendations you’ve heard time and time again at this point (handwashing, cleaning often touched surfaces), a new study from the University of Virginia Health System has a new suggestion. They’ve uncovered compelling evidence that maintaining a regular cardiovascular exercise schedule can prevent or at least greatly reduce the severity of ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) in the event of coronavirus infection. ARDS is the number one cause of death among COVID-19 patients.
According to the CDC, ARDS occurs in roughly 20-42% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 67-85% of patients in intensive care. It’s estimated that 45% of those who develop severe ARDS will die. This awful form of lung inflammation, characterized by shortness of breath and an inability to breathe, is the reason why hospitals all over the world are running out of ventilators.
The research’s main author, Zhen Yan, Ph.D., believes everyone should be taking care of their fitness during this pandemic to improve their chances of stopping ARDS before it ever has a chance to take hold.
“All you hear now is either social distancing or ventilator as if all we can do is either avoiding exposure or relying on a ventilator to survive if we get infected,” He explains in a university release. “The flip side of the story is that approximately 80% of confirmed COVID-19 patients have mild symptoms with no need of respiratory support. The question is why. Our findings of an endogenous antioxidant enzyme provide important clues and have intrigued us to develop a novel therapeutic for ARDS caused by COVID-19.”
Dr. Yan’s research centered on an antioxidant called “extracellular superoxide dismutase” (EcSOD). This antioxidant is super beneficial for our bodies; it hunts down harmful free radicals, protects tissue, and assists in disease prevention. The muscles in our bodies naturally create EcSOD, but cardiovascular exercise ramps up production.
Decreases in EcSOD levels are associated with a variety of ailments, from lung disease to kidney failure. Meanwhile increased levels usually lead to noticeable health benefits. It isn’t all that hard to produce either. Dr. Yan’s research suggests a single exercise session is all it takes to increase production in one’s body.
For many of us, it’s never been harder to get in a quality workout. Gyms and public parks are closed down across the country, and not everyone has a home gym. It’s not easy, but Dr. Yan urges everyone to find a way to get their heart pumping and muscles moving. It could make all the difference.
“We cannot live in isolation forever,” he comments. “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.”
Besides just prevention or mitigation, there is also the potential for EcSOD to be used as a treatment for COVID-19 patients already battling ARDS. Gene therapy could conceivably be used to increase EcSOD production in ICU patients. It may also be used in the future to treat a host of diseases, including multi-organ dysfunction syndrome and diabetic retinopathy, a form of blindness caused by diabetes.
“We often say that exercise is medicine. EcSOD set a perfect example that we can learn from the biological process of exercise to advance medicine,” Dr. Yan concludes. “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.”
Economies and businesses will open back up long before a vaccine is released, albeit with strict social distancing and hygiene policies. These measures, though, won’t be enough to stop all infections. The uncomfortable truth is many more people will be infected before this is all over, even with the most stringent of containment measures. We’re all hoping and praying for a vaccine as soon as possible, but until then, adopting a regular exercise regiment is a great way to protect yourself and your lungs.
The full study can be found here, published in Redox Biology.