Scientists reverse course on exercise advice for long COVID patients

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Fatigue, chest pain, difficulty breathing, headaches — Long COVID can last months or even years after a COVID infection, and the symptoms can be debilitating. Previously, the World Health Organization advised those experiencing the post-COVID-19 condition to think twice before breaking a sweat, leaving many to pack on pounds as they wait for their condition to improve. Now, however, scientists may be reversing course when it comes to Long COVID exercise advise.

“People with post-COVID should not be discouraged from exercising in general,” said researcher Andrea Tryfonos, a postdoctoral investigator with the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “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.”

Tryfonos and her colleagues recently completed a study to determine if exercise really helps or harms patients with Long COVID. Dozens of participants, half with Long COVID and half without, completed a trio of exercise sessions featuring high-intensity interval training and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise on an exercise bike, along with strength training.

The study was published in the JAMA Network Open journal.

“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.”

After running a series of exams on the patients throughout the study, the researchers determined that Long COVID patients can benefit from exercise. And that can come with serious benefits, because as many as 62% of those affected by the condition also suffer from myopathy — which can lead to muscle weakness.