Reducing the Risk: Can Regular Exercise Prevent Infectious Disease Mortality?


Aerobic activity and muscle strengthening exercises reduced the risk of pneumonia or influenza mortality, even when the exercises were completed less frequently than recommended.

Aerobic activity and muscle strengthening exercises reduced the risk of pneumonia or influenza mortality, even when the exercises were completed less frequently than recommended.

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock/ Halfpoint.

Regular exercise is widely acknowledged for its health benefits; adults are advised to complete at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous intensity, aerobic physical activity a week.

Aerobic activity, including speed walking, swimming, running, and stair climbing, is sustained movement that increases heart rate and works up a sweat. Adults are also recommended to complete muscle strengthening exercises, such as using weights or resistance bands, at moderate or greater intensity at least twice a week.

Exercising regularly has been proven to help maintain physical and mental health, as well as prevent serious illness. However, can exercise ward off severe respiratory infections? One study, recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, examined the association between leisure-time physical activity and mortality from influenza and pneumonia. The investigators wanted to determine whether specific types of physical activity could reduce the risk of death from these infections.

The study utilized data from the National Health Interview Survey, which included a nationally representative sample of American adults. The participants were recruited from 1998-2018 and followed for mortality through 2019. Study participants were classified as meeting physical activity guidelines if they reported at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity and 2 episodes a week of muscle-strengthening activity.

The participants were grouped into 5 categories of self-reported aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. They were also classified by age, sex, race, ethnicity, education, marital status, smoking, alcohol consumption, body mass index (BMI), diagnosed heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma. Influenza and pneumococcal vaccination status were also taken into consideration.

A total of 577909 participants were included in the study, averaging 52.2% female and 69.2% non-Hispanic White. Neither the aerobic nor muscle-strengthening guidelines were met by 50.5% of the study patients.

After an average of 9.23 years of follow-up, 81431 deaths were recorded in the cohort, 1516 of which were attributed to influenza or pneumonia.

The participants who did fulfill both physical exercise guidelines had a 48% lower adjusted risk of influenza and pneumonia mortality than those who did not. Participants who only met the aerobic guideline had a 36% lower adjusted mortality risk, while meeting only the muscle strengthening guideline was not associated with a significant mortality reduction.

Leisure-time physical activity was associated with a lower risk of influenza and pneumonia mortality, even at an amount below the weekly recommendation. By quantity, completing 10–149 minutes a week of aerobic physical activity had a 21% lower risk of pneumonia or influenza mortality, while 150–300 mins/week lowered the risk of mortality by 41%, and 301–600 mins/week lowered the risk by 50%.

“Current physical activity guidelines emphasize prevention of non-communicable diseases,” the investigations concluded. “When updated, these guidelines may wish to reflect the emerging body of evidence demonstrating an association between physical activity and lower mortality from infectious diseases.

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