Exercise halves risk of dying from flu or pneumonia

3 minute read

Cardio and strength exercise significantly improves the chances of surviving, even if weekly guidelines are not met.

Just 20 minutes of cardio per day, and two days on the weights per week, halves the risk of dying from the flu or pneumonia according to a large US study.

But the good news is that your risks shrank even if you didn’t meet the recommended exercise guidelines.

The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that even 10-149 minutes of cardio per week reduced risk of flu- or pneumonia-related mortality by 20% compared to those who were inactive.

And 2.5 hours each week cut the risk of dying from these infections by more than a third, according to the analysis of two decades of data on more than half a million US survey respondents.

Evidence is mounting that a lack of exercise is an important risk factor for mortality due to infectious diseases.

Guidelines on physical activity may benefit from updates, highlighting the evidence of the protective nature against infectious disease, the researchers suggested.

“Considering the plausible biological mechanisms and the consistency with previous studies, this protective association may warrant additional clinical and public health efforts to decrease the prevalence of aerobic inactivity and inadequate [muscle-strengthening activity],” they wrote.

This longitudinal, observational study followed around 580,000 adults for an average of nine years.

Half did not meet either exercise guidelines – at least 150 minutes of moderate-strenuous exercise and two muscle strengthening session per week.

Of the 80,000 deaths recorded, 1500 deaths were attributed to flu or pneumonia.

While meeting both cardio and strength training guidelines was associated with the greatest reductions in flu/pneumonia-related mortality, the research showed that even those meeting only the cardio guidelines cut their risk of death from flu or pneumonia by over a third.

Doing two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity per week halved the risk of flu/pneumonia-related death compared to those doing less, independent of aerobic activity.

Interestingly, the study found overly frequent strengthening may increase risk of mortality from flu/pneumonia – with seven or more sessions associated with 40% increased risk of death from flu/pneumonia.

“While beyond the scope of this study, plausible explanations range from inaccurate responses (such as reporting occupational physical activity, which may not confer the same protective effect as leisure-time physical activity) to haemodynamic ramifications of frequent, high-intensity MSA,” the authors wrote.

The researchers also didn’t provide more granular detail on the different risk reductions at levels between 10 and 149 minutes of cardio per week, making it impossible to know what the benefits were at lower levels.

“Although this level is often labelled ‘insufficient’ because it falls below the recommended duration, it may confer health benefits relative to physical inactivity,” the authors wrote.  

Physical activity has been linked to cardiovascular benefits, healthier immune profile and potentially improved immune response to vaccination, all of which make the findings of this study biologically plausible, the authors said.

“Efforts to reduce influenza and pneumonia mortality among adults might focus on decreasing the prevalence of aerobic inactivity and increasing the prevalence of achieving two episodes/week of muscle-strengthening activity,” they concluded.

British Journal of Sports Medicine 2023, online 16 May

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