Exercise Can Reduce Risk of Severe COVID-19 Respiratory Complications, Says UVA Researcher


According to a release from the UVA Health System Newsroom, Dr. Zhen Yan, PhD, discovered that exercise can reduce or totally stop severe respiratory symptoms associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). If you think you’ve heard of ARDS lately, you probably have – in relation to COVID-19. That’s because severe ARDS appears in the most severe cases of the virus and will be fatal for nearly half of the patients who develop it. So how can exercise help? The full findings are published in Redox Biology.


COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2. The CDC notes that it is a betacoronavirus which originated in bats. The early epicenter was in Wuhan, China. However, COVID-19 has rapidly spread across the globe. There are now COVID-19 cases in 210 countries and territories. What is perhaps more frightening is that cases have been reported in indigenous communities. At the time of this article, there are:

  • 2.6 million reported cases worldwide
  • 180,784 deaths reported worldwide
  • 836,000 reported cases in the United States
  • 46,899 reported deaths in the United States

A significant portion patients with COVID-19 that require hospitalization present with symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome. ARDS is a lung disease which prevents oxygen from reaching the blood and lungs. Fluid builds up in the alveoli (air sacs), which prevents oxygen from entering the bloodstream. The lungs then become stiff and heavy.

Patients with ARDS usually start symptoms within 1-2 days of injury or illness (leading causes of ARDS). Symptoms include organ failure, fatigue, confusion, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, cyanosis, and low blood pressure. Most people with ARDS are already grappling with other health conditions, such as sepsis, pneumonia, chemical inhalation, and pancreatitis. Learn more about ARDS here.

Now, Dr. Yan shows that ARDS will impact up to 17% of patients with COVID-19. 20-42% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 will also develop ARDS. For patients with COVID-19 later sent to the ICU, around 67-85% have ARDS.

Yan’s Findings: The Importance of Exercise

About 80% of patients with COVID-19 do not need additional respiratory help. Dr. Yan was curious as to why some patients presented with such severe symptoms while most did not. He found that the key might lie in staying active.

He assembled a comprehensive review of medical research surrounding extracellular superoxide dismutase (EcSOD). EcSOD is an antioxidant that destroys free radicals. While a study in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity notes that EcSOD can promote tumor growth in patients with cancer, it has beneficial effects in other patients. Particularly, EcSOD increases tissue healing and decreases inflammation.

Normally, our bodies create EcSOD on its own. Patients with acute lung disease, osteoarthritis, kidney failure, and ischemic heart disease have lower levels of EcSOD. However, cardiovascular exercise is linked to the increased production of EcSOD. Thus, Yan suggests that everybody find a way to exercise at home. Of course, your exercise routine should be tailored to your needs and abilities.

EcSOD as a Treatment of ARDS, COVID-19

The findings show that EcSOD could act as a potential therapy for ARDS, osteoarthritis, diabetic retinopathy, and more. One way to stimulate production of EcSOD is through gene therapy, where clinicians could encourage EcSOD growth in the lungs.

However, until more targeted options can be researched, Yan urges people to stay active.

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn has an educational background in writing and marketing. She firmly believes in the power of writing in amplifying voices, and looks forward to doing so for the rare disease community.

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