Physical activity lessens mental and neurological symptoms in young women during and post-COVID-19, study says

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In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, researchers investigate the effects of physical activity (PA) on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) symptoms among young females.

Study: Higher level of physical activity reduces mental and neurological symptoms during and two years after COVID-19 infection in young women. Image Credit: lzf / ShutterstockStudy: Higher level of physical activity reduces mental and neurological symptoms during and two years after COVID-19 infection in young women. Image Credit: lzf / Shutterstock

PA and COVID-19

The protective role of PA against several respiratory infections is well established. Regular PA augments immune function and reduces the risk of acute respiratory infections. Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle has been associated with an increased risk of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection and severe COVID-19.

One-third of individuals previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 report long-term symptoms that persist for over four weeks following recovery from the infection. Common symptoms of this post-COVID-19 condition (PCC) include shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, changes in taste/smell, cognitive dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and headache.

Several risk factors for severe COVID-19 have been identified including sex, advanced age, and comorbidities, which are also related to physical inactivity. PA levels generally differ between females and males, as females in most countries are less physically active than males. While males are at a greater risk of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, a greater prevalence of PCC has been reported among females.

About the study

In the present study, researchers evaluate whether regular PA mitigates COVID-19 and PCC symptoms among young females. To this end, data on SARS-CoV-2 infection and symptoms were collected using the World Health Organization (WHO) post-COVID case report form between July 20, 2022, and October 5, 2023.

Functioning was measured on a five-point scale and compared to a pre-COVID-19 condition on a three-point scale. The international PA questionnaire short form was used to measure PA levels.

A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) examined group differences. Pearson’s correlation coefficients were also calculated.

Study findings

The current study included a total of 802 females between 18 and 34 years of age. Within the study cohort, 442 females contracted SARS-CoV-2, 370 of whom had laboratory-confirmed infection.

Over 92% of study participants were vaccinated against COVID-19, 373 of whom received three doses, whereas 336 received two vaccine doses. A total of 167 individuals were re-infected with SARS-CoV-2, with these repeat infections typically occurring after vaccination.

Approximately 43% of study participants reported low PA, 34.8% reported moderate PA, and 22.3% reported high PA. About 26% of individuals experienced persistent or intermittent symptoms following recovery from the initial infection.

COVID-19 severity was mild in most cases, irrespective of PA levels. Nevertheless, two cases of severe COVID-19 occurred in individuals who reported low PA.

A significant association was observed between COVID-19 prevalence and PA categories, with a higher infection rate observed in the moderate PA group as compared to other groups.

No statistically significant association was observed between PA, reinfection with SARS-CoV-2, or PCC. Although not significant, the rate of reinfection declined with increasing levels of PA.

An average of 14 symptoms were reported during acute COVID-19, with the prevalence of symptoms reducing as PA levels increased. In fact, the high PA group experienced the lowest number of symptoms, whereas the low PA group reported the greatest number of symptoms.

Most symptoms were general, neurological, and/or mental, regardless of PA levels, with these symptoms more frequently observed in individuals who reported moderate or low PA. The most common symptoms of acute COVID-19 were fatigue, anxiety, dysmenorrhea, dizziness, forgetfulness, loss of interest, and depression.

The most common PCC symptoms included fatigue, forgetfulness, lightheadedness, anxiety, palpitations, loss of interest, and difficulties in concentrating. The prevalence of these symptoms was lower in individuals with high PA, whereas forgetfulness, lightheadedness, and depression were more frequently observed in those with low or moderate PA.

Cardiovascular symptoms including chest pain, palpitations, and post-exertional malaise, as well as dysmenorrhea, anxiety, and loss of interest were more frequently observed in individuals with moderate PA. The total functioning score ranged between zero and 72.5 among individuals who contracted SARS-CoV-2, thus implying mild or no difficulties in functioning. Only five individuals experienced moderate difficulties and aggravated status in functioning.

Conclusions

The current study explored whether regular PA reduces the prevalence of symptoms during and after COVID-19 in young females. Although PCC was common, with about 25% of the study cohort reporting persistent or intermittent mental and neurological symptoms two years post-infection, these symptoms declined with rising PA levels in acute COVID-19 and PCC. Likewise, the reinfection rate decreased with higher levels of PA.

Journal reference:
  • Takács, J., Deák, D., Koller, A. (2024). Higher level of physical activity reduces mental and neurological symptoms during and two years after COVID-19 infection in young women. Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/s41598-024-57646-2.  

Article Revisions

  • Apr 3 2024 - Title changed to more precisely reflect the findings of this study, "Exercise reduces long-term COVID symptoms in young women" to "Physical activity lessens mental and neurological symptoms in young women during and post-COVID-19, study says"
Tarun Sai Lomte

Written by

Tarun Sai Lomte

Tarun is a writer based in Hyderabad, India. He has a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Hyderabad and is enthusiastic about scientific research. He enjoys reading research papers and literature reviews and is passionate about writing.

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