GCU researchers behind world’s largest study into the impact of physical activity on COVID-19 immunity

Leading physical activity researchers, respiratory experts, and sport and exercise psychologists at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) have launched the world’s largest study to find out for certain if physical activity can boost COVID-19 immunity.

The study is aimed at aiding government decision-making around current recommendations on physical activity and exercise to boost immunity to COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic.

It is the most comprehensive systematic review ever conducted into the impact of physical activity on immune response, analysing more than 14,000 research papers published world-wide over the last 40 years for key data.

Scientists are in a race against time to find conclusive evidence that physical activity can lessen the impact of COVID-19 by the end of May 2020 and are working flat out to publish results of the study that would normally take months to collate.

They have joined forces with world-renowned immunologists and epidemiologists from University College London (UCL) and Ghent University (UGent) in Belgium, and a public health consultant from NHS Lanarkshire (NHSL).

GCU Professor of Health Behaviour Dynamics in the School of Health and Life Sciences Professor Sebastien Chastin, lead researcher in the study, said the results will help inform policymakers, health professionals and the public. He added that it could strengthen the case for opening up parks and other green and blue spaces during the coronavirus pandemic and help in prevention of a secondary outbreak in the winter.

He said: “This study is crucial because if we can prove that physical activity can help in any way shape or form to lessen the impact of COVID-19 it could have a huge impact on the pandemic and government decision-making. Exercise is a very cheap and easy measure. We think it is effective in fighting COVID-19 but we need to prove it entirely and by how much.

“The outcome of this study could level the discussion around opening parks and green spaces. There is a lot of argument and tension at the moment around people being active. One of the possible solutions would be to open other private places where people could go. It is important that we make sure people are as fit and active as possible, particularly if we face another outbreak in the winter.

“There is a lot of research out there but there has not been such a huge systematic pooling of all the results that can give us a clear and definite answer. As the University for the Common Good it is very significant that GCU is leading this crucial study.

“Our plan is to get this review published in a peer-reviewed medical journal but we will do an evidence briefing that we will make available to policymakers as soon as we have conclusive results.”

Other GCU researchers involved in the study are physical activity experts Dr Philippa Dall and Ukachukwu Abaraogu, sport and exercise psychologists Dr Elaine Duncan and Dr Joanna McParland, and respiratory specialist Dr Nicola Roberts.

They are working closely with UGent’s Professor of Exercise Physiology Jan Bourgois and exercise immunity expert Jasmien Dumortier, Mark Hamer, Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health (ISEH) at UCL, and NHS Lanarkshire Consultant in Public Health Dr Jennifer Darnborough.

Dr Duncan said: “A number of governments, including the UK and Scottish Government, are encouraging the population to remain physically active and there is debate about keeping outdoor spaces open to facilitate physical activity despite measures such as lock-down and social distancing.

“Research suggests that physical activity directly boosts immune response, both acutely and in the long term. Research also suggests that physical activity can decrease stress and chronic inflammation, thereby reducing the risk of infection.

“However, to date, there is no systematic review or meta-analysis summarising this evidence. The team are working to a tight deadline to deliver scientifically informed guidance testing the notion that physical activity might help within the pandemic.”

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