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  • Posted April 5, 2024

It May Be Fine to Exercise During Long COVID

People with Long COVID might be able to exercise to improve their health, something that up to now has been discouraged, a new study suggests.

“The World Health Organization [WHO] and other major bodies have said that people with post-COVID should avoid intense exercise,” said lead researcher Andrea Tryfonos, a postdoctoral investigator with the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

But the new findings show that Long COVID patients do just as well after exercise as healthy people, “even though they had more symptoms to begin with,” Tryfonos said in an institute news release. “By equally well, I mean that they did not worsen their symptoms or negatively affect their body during the 48 hours we observed them."

Early observations suggested that exercising with Long COVID could be harmful, researchers noted.

Folks with Long COVID often experience symptoms like extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, elevated heart rate and muscle weakness, and these are often exacerbated by exertion.

To see whether exercise helps or harms, researchers recruited 31 people with Long COVID and matched them to 31 healthy people.

All participants completed three different exercise sessions consisting of high-intensity interval training and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise -- both on an exercise bike – as well as strength training.

The sessions happened in random order a few weeks apart, researchers said.

All participants underwent a battery of medical exams before, immediately after and two days after the training sessions, to assess their symptoms and overall health.

“People with post-COVID had generally lower levels of fitness and muscle strength, which could be due to both the infection and lower activity,” Tryfonos said. “After two years of prolonged symptoms and being discouraged from exercising, it's not surprising that you have lost some of your work capacity."

As many of 62% of Long COVID patients also suffered from myopathy, a change in muscle tissue that leads to muscle weakness, results showed.

“This percentage is far too high to be explained by reduced activity alone. Therefore, we are currently analyzing the biopsies to see if we can explain the reason behind these muscle changes," Tryfonos said.

However, the results in general show that people with Long COVID could benefit from some exercise.

The new study was published April 4 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“People with post-COVID should not be discouraged from exercising in general,” Tryfonos said. “Instead, under supervision, they should be encouraged to start with any kind of exercise they enjoy, at an appropriate level of course, and then slowly increase the intensity."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about Long COVID.

SOURCE: Karolinska Institute, news release, April 4, 2024 

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