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Last year, right around the time COVID-19 was beginning to work its way around the world and into our daily lexicon, the comedian Marc Maron released a stand-up special called End Times Fun. It’s a fine performance, lots of laughs to be had. However one joke in particular left me licking some minor emotional wounds.

He starts things off by mocking the supplement industry (“Turmeric? That spice you buy once to make an Indian recipe and you never use again and it stains your wooden spoon? That turmeric?”) and health advice in general (“What happened to cholesterol? Turns out that’s good for you! What?? When did that happen?”), before skewering my very profession with a series of barbs that are as accurate as they are hilarious (“Most trainers, this wasn’t their life’s goal. They had other plans. They didn’t make the team, they were already at the gym a lot anyway…”).

When it comes to comedy, personal trainers are an easy target. There are very few barriers to entry into the profession, which means for every superstar who knows their stuff inside and out, you have at least a dozen walking punchlines. Do you know how many clients I’ve told to take turmeric? All of them! Still, I love my job and think personal training is an important, dare I say even essential, service.

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Case in point: for as long as I can remember the fitness industry has been promoting the value of regular physical activity and the health risks that often accompany a sedentary lifestyle. The notion that you need to train with the relentless vigour of a professional athlete is outdated. Today’s trainers (the good ones, at least) know that 20-30 minutes of focused and purposeful movement – aiming for around 150 minutes over the course of a week – is all it takes to improve your quality of life.

The jury’s still out on whether or not turmeric’s supposed awesomeness is legit, but recent reports from the world of science have given a big boost to our ideas around the benefits of physical activity. According to a study published in the April edition of the peer-reviewed medical trade journal BMJ, physical inactivity is directly associated with “severe COVID-19 outcomes.” Of the nearly 50,000 adults included in the study, those who met or exceeded that 150 minutes-per-week standard “had lower odds of being hospitalised, requiring ICU admission and dying from COVID-19.”

The study further states: “being consistently inactive was a stronger risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes than any of the underlying medical conditions and risk factors identified by CDC except for age and a history of organ transplant.”

Chalk one up for personal trainers!

Pretty compelling evidence, if more was needed, that having an above-average level of fitness is worth the time investment. But why is this such an important factor? What is it about exercise that protects against COVID’s most pernicious effects? Spend some time on social media and you’ll encounter all sorts of trainers who are trumpeting this study’s results, making it seem as if with every dumbbell curl one executes, their immune system grows along with their biceps, making them all but bulletproof in the face of this pandemic.

I feel this is an oversimplification, but because the two-year college diploma I earned in Fitness and Health Promotion didn’t include a whole lot on the subjects of infectious disease and virology, I am going to defer to an actual expert on these matters, Dr. Martha Fulford, infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University.

“There are things about the immune system we don’t understand,” said Dr. Fulford during a Zoom interview. “The impact of emotional stress, for example. Clearly there’s some link. When people are under a lot of stress, they’re more vulnerable to infections of all kinds.”

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This is an important point to remember. Stress is a powerful force, one that counters many of the positive benefits of exercise. In fact, exercise itself is a form of stress, which may help to explain why even the fittest people on the planet – like Canadian Olympic gold medalist Alex Kopacz – are still susceptible to COVID.

Along with the BMJ study, Dr. Fulford shared with me a report on the impact obesity has on COVID-19. These findings show that people with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 who contract COVID-19 are 113 per cent more likely to require hospitalization, 74 per cent more likely to be admitted to an ICU and 48 per cent more likely to die.

Obesity and physical inactivity are already well-known to be harbingers of future health concerns. What these studies indicate is that while many of these health concerns – type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, chronic inflammation – can be managed on their own, they seem to create a perfect environment for COVID-19 to thrive.

That said, it’s a mistake, says Dr. Fulford, to conflate physical fitness with any level of increased immunity. Regardless of your BMI or how impressive your 10K time is, everyone has the potential to contract and spread COVID-19.

“Being fit doesn’t mean you won’t get COVID,” said Dr. Fulford. “What it means is that if you do get it, you’ll have a much better chance of a positive outcome.”

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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